Gardening with Disabilities: Gardening for the Memory Impaired

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Susan Hoysagk is a seasoned nurse who, when not busy “nursing it up,” can be found gardening, experimental cooking with fresh organic herbs and veggies from her garden, reading, writing and rearranging her yarn stash.

Nothing can be done except little by little. ~Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867, French poet) 

As in life, this quote is especially apropos in the garden. Planning, purchasing, planting, watering, nurturing and harvesting all are done one step at a time; sometimes piece by piece. This is why gardening for those with disabilities is something possible regardless of disability or age. 

Disabilities can be physical, mental, developmental, cognitive, emotional or sensory (or all/some of these). There is just some type of limiting function that keeps a person from participating in activities of daily living and, most importantly, enjoying life. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than a billion people in our world experience some type of disability (about 15 percent of the population). I think there are even more than that. 

While I am spitting out numbers, (they put things into perspective for me, at least), the umbrella diagnosis of dementia affects approximately 4-5 million just in the United States. In the past we called it senility and thought it to be normal as we aged. Now we know different although scientists still do not know all the “whys” of what causes these changes.

Tying shoes is one example of procedural memory. Photo By tableatny/Courtesy Flickr.

For those with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia where a loss of brain function occurs gardening is something doable and enjoyable as it can be done little by little. Gardening is a physical activity that engages the mind as well, helping to exercise functions to help the mind retain them. How about a little more medical terminology: procedural memory. This is our mind helping us perform the everyday stuff without thinking about it (like walking, typing, riding a bike, buttoning a shirt, tying shoes, etc.). We learn it through practice and repetition so that it seems automatic. In some with dementia, especially Alzheimer’s, this brain function is still working. This means simple gardening tasks such as raking, sweeping, weeding, taking things to the compost bin, watering, picking flowers or vegetables, and deadheading are not only doable but can help maintain or even restore some functions while decreasing agitation that can accompany the disease. 

When creating a garden for the memory-impaired remember to keep the entrance back inside visible from all areas and provide visual cues throughout the garden to help keep the person from getting overwhelmed or lost. A bench, bird feeding station, colorful garden art or a brightly painted mailbox provide visual markers to ease the way (and you can keep gloves, trowel, clippers or other small gardening tools in the mailbox. How handy!). Gardening also provides pleasure using the senses through smelling, touching/feeling, hearing and seeing. It can evoke pleasant memories as well. For example, sweet peas always remind me of my maternal grandmother and the tall wall of them she grew every year. The warm summer breeze blowing the sweet scent around her yard as I played–the memory makes me smile every time. Professional folks call this reminiscence therapy.

Reminiscence therapy involves things that evoke comforting memories such as certain flowers or scents. Photo By phillipbouchard/Courtesy Flickr.

For some with dementia, living at home is no longer an option. Many assisted living and other long-term care facilities are incorporating gardening into the design. If they don’t have a gardening program, encourage them to start one. More and more studies are being done that show how these programs greatly increase quality of life. I read one where a woman was not eating no matter what plan of action was tried. One of her care givers noticed how much she liked to be in the garden, sometimes just lying in the grass. She decided to take the woman’s dinner out to the garden and sat with her. While they talked about the garden, the woman slowly started to eat! Sometimes just being able to sit outside in the garden is all a person can do, but this too is therapeutic.

The Portland Memory Garden is a wonderful example of an outdoor space created with the memory-impaired in mind. Photo By brx0/Courtesy Flickr.

Communities can (and should!) also get involved. The Portland Memory Garden in Portland, Oregon, was created as a demonstration garden for the 100 Parks, 100 Years American Society of Landscape Artists’ centennial celebration. It is “a community’s gift to those living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.” Every city (I will say it again) could and should have one if people would just get involved. What a great gift to our communities, our loved ones and ourselves.


Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture

Alzheimer’s Association

Center of Design for an Aging Society

Dementia Advocacy and Support International

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