I love gardening, as did my dad. It’s being outside, hearing the birdsong, smelling the earthiness of the soil, seeing green shoots magically appear from seeds you’ve sewn.
Now this fulfilling pursuit is increasingly being used to help care home residents and those with dementia reconnect with nature, with other people, with life itself. It’s one of those activities, like care farms and breeding hens (both of which I’ve written about), that fire the imagination and set your soul singing.
In the West Country, a conversation between two friends over Sunday lunch about how bored their elderly relatives were in their care homes led to the creation of Growing Support, a social enterprise that runs weekly gardening clubs for older people including those with dementia.
Take a look at its website where, in an uplifting video under the What We Do/Activities tab, a group who use the Let’s Grow community allotment in Knowle, Bristol, explain how much they gain from it.
One of them is 63-year-old former bus driver Mike Stillman, who was diagnosed with young onset dementia a year ago. He also has two allotments at Frenchay and tells me he’s planted 155 cabbage plants and grows beetroot, garlic, celery and potatoes. When we spoke a while ago he was just about to plant 250 broad bean plants.
“I think it’s very important to keep active – with gardening you exercise both body and mind”, he says.
Dale Cranshaw, 33, one of Growing Support’s two founders, explains that being outside in the natural environment has many inbuilt benefits for those with dementia because our brains become more relaxed when they don’t have to deal with the many different stimuli – such as fast, noisy vehicles and busy pavements packed with pedestrians – of urban areas.
“In nature it is easier to focus and engage. Even a view of nature reduces stress and depression, and even if someone with advanced dementia doesn’t like gardening they can still benefit from coming outside and using the different senses of smell, touch and sight,” he says.
It is also easier to run group sessions outside because you can adapt to varying needs. “In a garden, if someone doesn’t want to sow seeds,” says Dale, “they can weed or do some cutting back – there’s more flexibility to swap activities”.
In the three years since it was founded, Growing Support has established gardening groups for people with dementia in three community gardens – all in the Bristol area. It now has three employees and two freelance workers. Key to the organisation’s success are its 40 volunteers (co-opted following a rigorous recruitment process) who, in the course of a year, support regular gardening activities in 30 care homes – last year they delivered 1,000 hours of therapeutic pursuits for older people, including those with dementia.
Dale and his co-founder Victoria Hill, 45, whom he met when they were both volunteering in Sierra Leone, both knew that they wanted volunteers to be part of the venture when they set it up three years ago with a £3,000 grant from Unltd, a foundation that supports social entrepreneurs.
Grace Walsh is one of the volunteers. A community nurse by profession, she has been working with people with dementia for 12 years and says there is “a spiritual aspect” to gardening – when someone simply sits, smells a plant or looks at a garden.
Grace, 59, is in no doubt about the benefits to those with the condition of gardening and being outside. She lists reawakening an awareness of the changing seasons, topping up Vitamin D, gaining a sense of purpose through planting edible things, getting muddy hands and feet instead of being washed clean the whole time. “It can be a little frightening for some people with dementia but they get used to it with our help,” she says.
She also gains from it. “It’s a luxury for me to sit with someone quietly and get them to pick up a seed and put it on a piece of paper. I have to slow down and be where they are. It is joyous and very beneficial for me”.
Twenty-six-year-old Rosie Sinfield explained how the training she received as a volunteer with Growing Support helped her to communicate with those with dementia by keeping her sentences short and simple. She volunteers at Glebe House, a care home in Almondsbury, and describes one man who, having been passive for weeks, rediscovered long-forgotten skills when he began scooping soil out of a trough into a pot. “I could see that he had done this hundreds of times before. He was at home in the task and it was great to see”.
I spoke to many people to research this blog but actually the best window onto what Growing Support achieves in its green-fingered way is its colourfully illustrated Facebook page. Take a look and you’ll see members of the AbleCare Homes Frenchay gardening club tidying their bee-friendly planters and discovering, while chatting, that one of their gardeners used to play football with Prince Philip; Blossoms Fields gardening club tying up their runner beans and planting summer-flowering bulbs (tasks that exercise fine motor skills); and the group at Springfields Allotments making homemade elderflower cordial.
It’s enough to make you snap shut the laptop, reach for the secateurs and run outside. After my dad died we planted a rose in his memory in the churchyard and marked it with a small plaque, for which my sister chose the following quote. “He who plants a garden plants happiness”. Amen to that.