A joyous place: The dementia-friendly gardening group

The city of Brighton & Hove has bid to become the UK’s first Gold Sustainable Food City. This blog is part of a series celebrating the important work in our city that is helping to improve our food system and support people to access healthy, sustainable food. These are the stories that bring to life what a gold sustainable food city really looks like. To help inspire others please share on social media using #goldfoodcitybid any good food work that you’re involved with or that you see around the city.

Food Partnership volunteer, Jason Deans, visited our dementia friendly gardening group to hear about the impact of the group from participants and volunteers.

The garden

flowers with people in the backgroundThe garden group offers participants an opportunity to get outdoors in a beautiful private garden, taking part in a range of horticulture, arts and crafts activities and socialising with people in a similar situation. Course leader Caroline has been running the group for four years along with a team of volunteers, many of whom have also been with the project since the outset. They put much thought and effort into making the weekly gatherings a friendly and stimulating experience.

Caroline highlights the group’s good fortune in meeting at the Garden House, a private garden on a quiet residential street that hosts an array of horticulture-related events. Garden House owner Bridgette has developed the large former market garden at the rear of her home into a beautiful, multi-level outdoor space with an array of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, bulbs and vegetables that change with the seasons.

Caroline noted “the Garden House has so much to offer in terms of what it brings in its richness and variety to our sessions … There’s a potential for awe and wonderment to be felt. We see and hear that being expressed in our participants every week, as they notice something new, some berries that have changed colour on a tree, or some fruit that they haven’t encountered for decades.

It’s designed in such a way that there’s interest through the year and with that comes lots of stimulation of the senses. There’s lots of colour, there’s lots of texture … A walk around the garden can be an activity in itself.

Elspeth, who attended the most recent course, describes the venue as a “fairyland garden” of the sort she has longed for since childhood. “We don’t do things at home, we watch TV or do jigsaws … This is a very special place,” she says. “The glory of it is it’s so different from our home, if we live alone, our lives are pretty mundane. So this is like a wonderful highlight in the week … The garden speaks for itself. I could just wander round here.”

A chance for adventure

dementia friendly gardening groupOn a practical level, running a dementia friendly gardening group presents particular challenges, another reason why Caroline is thankful to have the use of the Garden House. It can only be accessed via a gate at the side of Brigette’s house and is hidden from view from the street out front.

“The benefit of being tucked away is that it’s very secluded, so it’s very safe,” she says. “When we were first looking at working with this group we did have concerns about people maybe wandering off, which meant community gardens in public spaces, for example, would have presented a challenge. There’s a pond but it’s safe. There’s no risk of anyone stumbling in to it. [The garden] is on different levels, which whilst that presents a logistical challenge of safely moving people up and down the levels, it really creates a journey for people around the space, and a sense of going on a bit of an adventure.

“One of the things that people have told us is that when you receive a dementia diagnosis your world can start to shrink a lot. And the people around you can become very risk averse. I think our project operating out of this venue is a good example of positive risk taking. Because the benefits of people maybe doing some more challenging physical navigation of the space comes with a sense of achievement.”

The activities

young man laughing at tableIn addition to providing a wonderful outdoor space, the venue has a large wooden studio with a wood-burning stove and kitchen – the actual Garden House – which also plays a crucial role in the dementia group’s activities.

Each session begins and ends with a tea break in the studio and it comes in particularly handy on inclement days. When participants arrive there might be plants, off-cuts or seasonal fruit from the garden and other items relating to that week’s activity, laid out on the table in the studio by Caroline and her team of volunteers, along with cups of tea and cake or biscuits.

Elspeth says: When you come in, that table, it’s always got something wonderful and exciting and welcoming on it … All different fruits and things. We all sit down in this lovely, cosy little place and we chat and laugh.

Caroline adds: “I think over time we’ve drawn more and more on the value of the tea break … I think that developed over time as being an opportunity to engage people’s senses, even before they’ve stepped out into the garden.”

The people

dementia friendly gardening groupAnother volunteer, Debbie, stresses the importance of providing a friendly, welcoming experience, and the cosy environment of the Garden House studio is a great help. “It’s very difficult for someone with dementia to come to the group for the first time,” she says. “The majority of people need someone to bring them. It’s quite intimidating, when you’ve got dementia, to walk into a strange place with people you don’t know.

“Quite often when they first come they’re a little bit shy and it’s just lovely to see them blossom.”

Caroline and the volunteers have all been on training courses to learn how best to interact with the participants. Amanda, one of the volunteers, says the ability to listen and allow people to talk is one of the most important skills, along with having conversations without asking questions, which can be stressful for someone with dementia if they cannot remember things or recall specific words or phrases.

She adds: “It’s the most awful thing to say to someone ‘Do you remember?’ Because if you were blind, I wouldn’t say ‘Can you see this?’ It’s the same … So basically what you try and do is engage in conversations but by only giving examples and then people can follow you.”

Caroline says that over the four years she and the volunteers have also learned to become “more nimble and adaptable” in tailoring activities to specific individuals within each group on the course. “We have been taught by our participants that you’re not providing activities for those with dementia, you’re providing activities for the person behind the dementia,” she adds.

When a new group starts in the garden, Caroline and the volunteers always begin by getting to know their new participants. “We always do a tour of the garden first and then we can assess their physical needs,” says Debbie. “We just observe them, and see what they like doing and what they’re interested in, and then we can find activities for them to do. Or maybe they don’t want to do anything, they just want to sit and look at the flowers, or talk and drink tea and eat cake. It’s led by the people that come. If they don’t want to do something, that’s fine … It’s a safe space where they can be themselves.”

A sense of purpose and achievement

two women plantingIn the most recent group one participant liked being out in the garden, clearing paths or digging. Another liked collecting leaves, so this was incorporated into the weekly group activities. Caroline says: “One of the volunteers would go off with our leaf-collecting friend to make sure that she was able to indulge in an activity that was of particular value to her.”

She adds: “We really found that we can tailor activities in the garden very specifically to people without needing to split the group up too much. Some people in the group have more of a desire to be very physically active and get involved in digging and planting and really using their physical abilities. Other people are very content to be seated outside, transplanting plants and just taking time to feel connected to something else living … And we’d bring those activities back together and then celebrate what everyone had achieved in our tea breaks. So there were many opportunities provided by the activity, and the garden, to mark people’s achievements, over and above just the benefits of being together and having a nice social interaction.”

Activities for the latest group included leaf rubbing; collecting and drying seeds and designing artwork for the packets to put them in; filling bird feeders and taking them home; and making mini gardens in tea cups supplied by Bridgette.

dementia friendly gardening groupElspeth says her favourite activities have included making little bags out of different material to put lavender seeds in, and making leaf rubbings using sticks of graphite. She adds: “Being 90 I can’t do very much. Everything I touch I drop. I forget I’m holding something, you see. So to be able to come in and make lavender bags and do leaf rubbing, it makes us feel … victorious! We took them home and my daughter said: ‘My goodness, I can’t believe you did that’. It’s so nice to show somebody when you’ve done it.”

Caroline thinks that “doing something purposeful is so precious to people who may have had the opportunities to feel purposeful stripped away by their diagnosis and by their care needs”. She also stresses the importance of the activities in giving participants something to take home with them, providing the spark for conversations with family, friends and carers.

“One carer in particular mentioned that when she visited a participant after the garden group session she found her to be much more animated,” she says. “And there were many more opportunities for conversation because this lady could then talk about things that had happened in the session, or even if she didn’t have the capacity to remember exactly what had gone on, there would often be a prompt in the form of the seed packet, as an example.”

A joyous place

Pat, another volunteer, neatly sums up what the group provides for participants. “It is about unlocking the door, for someone who can’t remember, or doesn’t have the mental capacity to do the things that they could do before,” she says. “It’s about finding something which for them brings a smile to their face and a bit of happiness.

It’s just a joyous place to be really. To join in other people’s pleasure at doing something that they might not remember five minutes later but they know at the time. And we laugh a lot, and we eat a lot, and we drink a lot.


Find out more about our dementia-friendly gardening and cookery activities here.

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