Memory care gardening: a rich harvest of health, hope and happiness.

There’s a growing body of academic research that confirms what backyard gardeners already know: gardening is good for you. Given their propensity to produce fruits, vegetables and blossoms, it really comes as no surprise. From nutrition to soul-soothing beauty, gardens offer an incredible return on the investment of both time and money. 

But studies suggest that the most profound benefits of gardening may be those we can’t see or consume. Gardening, it turns out, is a terrific way to bolster both physical and mental wellbeing, with benefits that can include: 

  • Improved dexterity, strength and endurance. Raking, digging, and the perpetual war on weeds requires both energy and movement. While gardening may not leave you winded, it gets blood flowing, requires coordination, and keeps muscles and joints moving. 
  • Social engagement. While it can also be a solitary activity, shared garden plots encourage interaction, which can foster connection, encourage relationship growth, and reduce loneliness.
  • Enhanced self-esteem. Playing a role in the transformation of seed (or seedling) to maturity can reinforce feelings of greater self worth.
  • Reduced stress and improved mood. Gardening isn’t like work, and for most, it’s not competitive. The slow, methodical task of nurturing plants is more often regarded as calming. It’s common to leave the garden happier and more relaxed than when you arrived. 
  • Exposure to fresh air and sunlight. Sunlight naturally stimulates the body’s production of vitamin D, which has been shown to play an important role in regulating mood. And spending time in the warm sun and fresh air nearly always feels better than an extended stay indoors.

…And nowhere are those benefits more powerful than in a residential memory care setting. Whether housemates were avid gardeners, weekend dabblers, or just happy consumers of produce and beauty, The Mooring’s raised beds have demonstrated their value as a shared source of pride, motivation and enjoyment each and every season since their installation. 

For housemates with mild dementia, gardening provides a familiar outlet capable of boosting both self-esteem and morale. In many cases, our most avid and capable gardeners take joy in sharing what they know and love with their peers. Community, it seems, is one of gardening’s most durable gifts – and working together to nurture beauty and sustenance is a shared pastime that draws as much on instinct as it does on experience. 

Those instinctive properties are particularly evident in housemates with more advanced memory loss. Similar to activities like swimming and music, gardening seems to connect at the deepest levels. And for those unable to actively participate in the process of digging, planting, weeding and harvesting, bearing witness to agriculture in action carries its own satisfaction. Turns out the determined smiles of avid gardeners spread at the speed of weeds. 

During each growing season, we see tangible evidence of gardening’s positive impact. We also hear it in the words of our housemates. When asked about this season’s plans, Judy, our resident master gardener said, “I’d like to see roses. All kinds. Maybe daffodils. And we’ve planted lettuce, cucumbers and tomatoes.” In an acknowledgement of early season gardening’s most productive crop, Judy added, “So far, though, we’ve been doing a lot of weeding.” For Judy, gardening is clearly a matter of second nature – and a pastime that’s integral to her identity. 

Conversations like that confirm what science suggests about the value of gardening in a residential memory care setting. Even our anecdotal observations, while unscientific, demonstrate that time spent in the garden can: 

  • Improve cognitive function. Our commitment to creative recreational therapy is founded on our firm – and confirmed – belief that engagement improves everyday mental function, and delays decline. Gardening is a profoundly engaging activity, where each day brings changes that require different actions: digging, planting, watering, weeding, harvesting all involve analysis and calculated responses. Working minds work better.
  • Improve sleep. Physical activity + mental activity + fresh air = tired. Getting outside and dabbling in our raised beds captures and holds most housemates’ attention. After even a short shift in the garden, we see its calming power. And the good, wholesome effort gardening requires makes sleep come just a little bit easier. 
  • Offer a sense of accomplishment/meaning. The act of nurturing plants is cathartic – and the process of seeing seedlings transition to maturity is rewarding. When housemates play a role in seeing something wonderful come to fruition – pun intended – they feel vital and invested, and their self esteem often shows marked improvement. 
  • Provide the comfort of routine. For those with progressive memory loss, routine often acts as a trigger – with today’s activity bringing to mind what was done yesterday and the day before. Recognizing patterns is an inherently human trait, and it’s reassuring when, in the face of decline, we can lean on our past to provide context for today. 

In our efforts to leverage the familiar and encourage engagement, gardening checks all the important boxes. So, each spring, when the first crocuses find their way through winter’s melting snow, you’re sure to find us dreaming of greener times, scanning seed catalogs, plotting our summer crops, and anticipating our harvest. Working together, housemates and care partners will return to the familiar – and share the joy of helping nature take its course.