'Gardens enable people with dementia to access long-forgotten memories and reduce anxiety' - Bloom garden designer
Gardens can help to ease distress and evoke memories for sufferers of the disease, writes Celine Naughton
In the world of garden design, it seems we can't get enough of the dramatic, the breathtaking and that all-important wow factor. But when it comes to gardens that are good for mental health, there's a different kind of showstopper that can do us all a power of good.
Visitors to this year's Bord Bia Bloom festival will have a chance to experience this for themselves with one of the show's highlights, a garden called 'Moments in Time' designed specially for people with dementia.
Sponsored by the HSE's Understand Together team, the project is a collaboration between landscape gardener Clive Jones of Newtown Saunders, TrinityHaus research centre at TCD, and Sonas apc, a charity that provides training and support for people with dementia and their carers.
It's the second successive year the team has brought a dementia-friendly garden to Bloom, following the silver medal-winning success of their previous entry, set in an urban garden. This year they're going for gold by turning their attention to public spaces.
"We want to showcase how communities can create a garden designed to stimulate the senses for people with dementia, and provide a place where those with the disease and their carers can come together and socialise," says Clive Jones.
"With a dementia-friendly garden, you don't want to overdo the bling. It has to be very calming and stimulate the senses in a deep, meaningful way, enabling people with dementia to access long-forgotten memories and reduce anxiety."
The Moments in Time garden is an oasis filled with different colours, aromas, sounds and textures, featuring a circular, weaving walkway with coloured concrete and brightly coloured handrails to encourage ease of access.
"The walkway has a number of zones, each with raised beds filled with distinct planting to tap into the five senses and evoke memories," says Clive. "We've used more than 30 types of plants, flowers and shrubs, including lavender, wild grasses, hydrangeas, bright daisies, forest ferns and lemon thyme, which has a wonderful scent."
How many times have you smelt a particular flower and it reminded you of someone dear to you? The sight and sound of bubbling water embedded in the planning stimulates the senses further, while along two walls are large photographs of people showing different aspects of Irish life. At the centre of it all is a covered seating area set in a small grove of birch trees, with items shown in the photos hung as props in their branches.
"A covered seating area is one of the most important features of a dementia-friendly garden, as it provides a place where people can sit and talk, and interact with the garden and each other," says Clive. "The one we've commissioned for the Bloom festival is a bespoke piece made of cedarwood, and it's stunning.
"We provide stop-off areas along the way, where people can run their fingers through a bunch of chamomile, nibble on a piece of lemon thyme, and enjoy the sights, smells and sounds of the plants, images and water. Even something as simple as seeing plants blowing in the breeze can give people with dementia a visual connection with nature."
It's likely to be a major attraction because, with 55,000 Irish people currently living with dementia - a number that's expected to more than double by 2036 - and over 180,000 people who are or have been carers for a family member of partner with dementia, few Irish families are not in some way affected by the disease. Alzheimer's is the most common cause, accounting for two-thirds of cases, but there are over 400 different types of dementia.
"But a diagnosis of dementia doesn't mean the end of doing things you enjoy," says Professor Brian Lawlor, consultant psychiatrist and chair of the Dementia: Understand Together campaign. "Continuing gardening and spending time outdoors are some ways that people can continue to live well with dementia. And as any gardener will tell you, a garden doesn't mind itself, so it helps to keep us occupied and maintain a sense of independence too."
The idea of creating a dementia-friendly garden came to Clive almost by accident, during a casual conversation with Professor Mark Dyer, director of TrinityHaus.
"He told me his team were researching how buildings could be designed for people with dementia, and I asked, 'What about the gardens?'" he says.
Further research between the partners led to Sonas apc coming on board.
The team now designs gardens for nursing and care homes nationwide.
"It's not a one-design-fits-all process," says Clive. "We did a garden for a nursing home in Kinsale with a nautical theme. Each project has to reflect its own local history and heritage so that people can connect with it."
The prototype was created in 2016 at St Clare's nursing home in Glasnevin, Dublin.
"We wanted an outdoor space where everybody could get together in the summer, and we could all sit around in a circle and do physio or have sing-songs or picnics," says Hilary Kingston, activities co-ordinator at St Clare's.
Within months the garden was transformed from a dull, largely unused, inaccessible space with a steep slope, to a bright, meandering garden designed to evoke memories and stimulate conversation.
"In the middle of the build, residents would gather at the window watching what we were doing," says Clive. "Now, from those same windows, they have a bright, welcoming space to look out on to, and a beautiful garden that will grow with them in the years to come."
The Moments in Time garden can be viewed at this year's Bord Bia Bloom festival in Phoenix Park on May 31 to June 4. For more information, visit understandtogether.ie/bloom.
Make your garden dementia-friendly
Gardens that stimulate the senses are great for evoking memories in people with dementia. Try these tips to make the most of yours.
- Layout - Use a straightforward layout that can be seen from inside your home. Provide accessible features such as handrails, raised planters and level, non-slip, single-colour patios and paths.
- Planting - Choose plants that are tactile and stir the senses with vibrant colours and beautiful scents. Hydrangeas, pinks and carnations, English lavender, Japanese maple and ox-eye daisy are all ideal.
- Familiar features - Fill the garden with features that stimulate fond memories, such as a vegetable patch, familiar plants, an inviting bench, or, dare we say it, even a garden gnome.
- Winged wonders - Connect with nature by encouraging birds into the garden. Set up a bird table, hanging feeders and water bowls where they can be easily seen, then wait for the show.
- Relax - Exercise and stimulation are great for mind and body, but it's also important to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour. Provide a sheltered seating area where the person with dementia can relax, take it all in and enjoy time out with family and friends.
- Easy to potter - Support therapeutic gardening activities and encourage opportunities to reminisce by providing clearly visible, accessible and easy-to-use equipment and tools.