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Horticultural Therapy For Seniors

The many benefits of horticultural therapy for the elderly


For generations, men who spend too much time gardening have had to defend it to their wives, who wanted them to do something else with their time. It turns out that the best argument was that gardening is good for their health. In recent years, horticultural therapy has expanded the therapeutic effects of gardening to a new level and found new ways that it can help the elderly and patients with dementia.

elderly horticulture for seniors

What Is Garden Therapy?

Garden therapy, or horticulture therapy as it’s also called, is a well-established and very popular therapy that has been proven to be effective in a wide range of situations. It’s quite a broad topic, since it includes the creation of healing landscapes for hospital patients; sensory gardens that stimulate children and adults with developmental disabilities; occupational horticulture therapy that can be done indoors or outdoors to improve muscle strength, coordination, and fine motor skills; rehabilitative therapy that encourages socialization, language skills, and communication; and more.


In different forms and settings, horticulture therapy has been successful therapy for children and the elderly; army veterans and prisoners; patients going through rehabilitation; the developmentally disabled; and adults and children who are unable to communicate, amongst others. This article will focus on horticultural therapy for the elderly, but much of what you’ll read applies equally to many other situations.


sensory garden for the elderly

Therapeutic Landscapes For The Elderly

Therapeutic gardens and healing landscapes can be used to soothe or to stimulate. Sensory gardens are designed to stimulate, where plants with different scents, colors and textures are carefully chosen and planted in various patterns and designs.

Alzheimer’s patients who are no longer able to communicate or express themselves respond in startlingly positive ways to spending time in a sensory garden, designed to stimulate the senses with different scents, sounds, colors and textures. Aromatic flowers and herbs, variously textured surfaces, ever-green shrubs and flowering plants in different colors and shades all play their part in awakening sensory awareness. Sound is also incorporated into a sensory garden through rustling leaves, running water, and structures built to attract wild birds. Some sensory gardens include the sense of taste, by planting edible herbs, miniature fruit trees, and vegetables that can be picked and eaten.


Soothing, healing gardens can be found in more and more hospitals, as they respond to evidence that patients heal faster and are in a more positive frame of mind if their rooms look out onto greenery or if there are plants in their room. Using evidence-based design, hospitals and hospices create gardens that support and soothe patients. These oases of greenery are carefully laid out to be calming and relaxing, providing an important natural environment for patients and visiting relatives to recharge.


For elderly victims of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, horticultural therapy can be a vital way of defending against further memory loss. It’s amazing to see the memories that are brought back just by being in a garden. The sight of a tree blowing in the wind, the sound of tinkling water, the smell of herbs in the hot sun – all of these are powerful memory triggers. People who bring their loved one to a memory sensory garden are often astonished by the recollections that their relative comes up with. The sights, sounds and smells of nature do not change much over time. There is a deep-seated familiarity to them, which is calming to the dementia patient who feels as though nothing can be relied on to stay the same.


Gardening Tasks As Occupational Therapy

Another form of horticultural therapy is active participation in gardening tasks. This form of occupational gardening therapy is very versatile. Many senior care homes now offer accessible therapeutic gardens and/or greenhouses so that residents can benefit from the therapy of caring for them. Accessible gardens use raised beds and low-hanging baskets that residents in wheel-chairs can reach easily, and ergonomic tools that are more comfortable for weaker or arthritic hands to grasp. With these adaptations, even the frail and elderly can take part in garden therapy tasks such as planting, pruning, weeding and watering.


Sometimes, people are put off horticultural therapy because they are worried about making the activity accessible enough, or are concerned about the weather or safety issues. While all of these concerns are valid, they are easily surmountable. Even seniors who are bed-bound or in climates where it is often impossible to go outside can enjoy gardening therapy. Building an accessible greenhouse is the best solution, but even tending a houseplant on the windowsill or a miniature container garden brings many of the benefits of horticulture therapy.


Garden therapy has a number of benefits for older people. Caring for a plant together encourages bonding and socialization, and stimulates communication as people share their memories and experiences of gardening. It is sadly easy for the elderly to retreat into themselves as they age, becoming more and more focused on their inner world and increasingly cut off from what is going on around them. The responsibility of caring for a tomato plant, for example, forces them to focus on the needs and requirements of something other than themselves, which opens their horizons to include more world around them.


The Impact Of Horticulture Therapy

Having a plant to care for can be more meaningful than you might expect. A senior who now needs help with many activities of daily living can feel helpless and despairing. To move from being an active agent of change in your life and the lives of those around you to being the subject of someone else’s care and decision-making can cause despair and depression among many seniors, regardless of whether that change was provoked by the onset of dementia, a sudden accident, or the gradual effects of aging. Garden therapy returns the senior to a position of strength and power, albeit in a limited gambit, since now he/she is the caregiverinstead of just the recipient of care.


Horticulture therapy brings many other benefits to seniors and everyone else too, for that matter. Spending time in the open air and interacting with fresh plants and flowers is soothing and refreshing for everybody and lifts your mental state. Gardening improves motor skills and dexterity, coordination and balance, and muscle strength too through activities such as digging, careful pruning and weeding, while there is really no comparison to the sense of achievement when a geranium flowers or a crop of tomatoes ripen.