by Maryanne Edmundson, Ph. D., L.P.

When you garden you don’t just grow plants; you grow your brain power! Studies suggest that gardening provides several methods for improving our daily brain health and functioning. First, it is a physical activity and, by reducing cardiovascular risk, regular physical exercise helps to reduce one’s risk of developing dementia. It also gets you out into the sun – a moderate amount of sunlight can help your body produce vitamin D, which is essential for our brain cells to function appropriately. If you are uncertain of how much exercise or sunlight (or vitamin D for that matter) is healthy for you given your medical history, check with your primary medical provider. Second, gardening provides mental and sensory stimulation, from the creativity and planning required to set up your garden to the smell and colorful sights of flowers and other plants to the feeling of soil between your fingers to the taste of the literal fruits of your labor. Growing plants can be a way to routinely exercise your brain’s abilities, and the more we challenge our brains the better connections we can make between brain cells. Over time, this helps us optimize our thinking speed and performance. Third, the mental stimulation of gardening, being in nature, and regularly doing an activity that you enjoy can improve daily mood and reduce general stress. Finally, you can grow herbs and vegetables that are healthy for brain functioning, such as leafy greens, tomatoes, fruits, and berries.

Some research has also investigated contributions that gardening can have toward the wellbeing of individuals with dementia. Gardening can be added as a part of a daily routine for someone with dementia, which can improve life quality and satisfaction by giving them a purposeful and meaningful activity, provide an opportunity for social interaction and sense of community, and, if the person used to garden in the past, gives them a chance to utilize old skills and reminisce about good memories. If you include your loved one with dementia in the planning process, set up, and regular upkeep, it could increase their sense of independence, control, creativity, and personhood, all of which can be shaken by a dementia diagnosis. Even if the person is no longer able to complete some of the gardening tasks themselves, they may be able to benefit from the calming sensory stimulation it can provide, such as bright colors, soothing smells, and activity of birds and butterflies attracted to certain plants. A garden can be a quiet place to sit and relax when feeling upset. Some studies even show that people with dementia who regularly garden have better daily attention, sleep, and overall health, and less agitation, pain, depression, anxiety, and stress. Gardening is not the only activity that can be beneficial
to someone with dementia, but is a good option to explore.

You may be unsure if you or your loved one can participate in gardening because of your individual needs and abilities. Thankfully, gardens can be adapted to fit you! If you use a wheelchair, can’t bend down, or are at risk of falling, you might set up raised beds, use window boxes, or have potted plants in your home, have garden railings, or include wide smooth garden walkways. If you have age-related visual degeneration, you might use garden supplies that are less reflective (producing less glare) and choose an open plant arrangement with fewer dark areas that are harder to see. If affordability is a factor, you may consider joining a community garden. If you and a loved one with dementia are planning a garden, you may choose a simplified garden design that is easier for them to navigate and plan to have the garden visible from their favorite chair inside the home so they can see it even when they cannot be outside (such as when it’s too hot or cold out).

If you have questions about adapting gardening for your loved one who has cognitive difficulties and/or dementia, consult with your local neuropsychologist.

Dr. Maryanne Edmundson is a clinical neuropsychologist at Pinehurst Neuropsychology Brain & Memory Clinic. She can be reached at 910-420-8041 or through the website at www.pinehurstneuropsychology.com.