Gardening & Alzheimer’s – Maintenance of the Brain

Gardening whether at home or in an assisted living community has proven to be a beneficial activity for the mind, body and spirit. A growing number of researchers and therapists have found that working with plants can enhance your physical and mental health, another reason that getting dirty for good, really is good.

It is estimated that there are approximately 44 million people worldwide living with Alzheimer’s disease or a related form of dementia. In the U.S., an estimated 5.5 million people of all ages have Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Studies are starting to consistently show that gardening daily significantly reduces overall risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as you age. A study found that gardening reduced the risk of cognitive decline by as much as 36%. The National Library of Medicine “Participants in the present study exhibited significantly increased levels of the brain nerve growth factors BDNF and PDGF by performing 20-min gardening activities with low to moderate intensity.” 

Studies show that gardening can lower stress levels and provide physical activity and at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, horticultural therapy has proven to be a valuable tool for treating Alzheimers and dementia. Summed up, here are a few key points to note regarding the relationship between gardening and Alzheimers:

  • In many studies conducted on the effects of sensory gardens on those with Alzheimers, many reveal a marked improvement in behavior, depression, enhanced cognition, and enhanced overall quality of life.
  • Gardening has restorative effect on the body and mind, many people after spending time gardening have a improved positive outlook on life.
  • Any form of exercise, mental and physical can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and gardening fits both of these categories.
  • In 2021 the National Library of Medicine released a study on the effectiveness of therapeutic gardens for people with Dementia and Alzheimer’s. The areas showing the greatest effects were engagement, reduced agitation, depression, stress.

What is the difference between Dementia and Alzheimer’s?

As noted by the Mayo Clinic, “These terms are often used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings. Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s an umbrella term that describes a wide range of symptoms. These symptoms affect people’s ability to perform everyday activities on their own. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is a specific brain disease, it is marked by symptoms of dementia that gradually get worse over time. Alzheimer’s disease first affects the part of the brain associated with learning. As the disease progresses, symptoms become more severe and include confusion, changes in behavior and other challenges.”

Studies and research have proven, time and time again, that gardening can be a healthy and productive activity for people of all ages and abilities, including those with Alzheimer’s disease. According to the National Institute of Health, “therapeutic gardens in care environments have positive effects on agitation, behavior, walking, stress levels, self-esteem, depression, and aggressiveness.”

All in all, gardening has been shown to have numerous benefits for individuals with Alzheimer’s, including increased physical activity, improved mood, and reduced stress levels. 

So how can you help a person with Alzheimer’s get started on growing? 

Gardenuity’s Tips and Tricks for Gardening with Alzheimer’s Disease:

  • Maintain a simple garden: Gardening does not have to be a complicated, robust garden that rivals a grocery store aisle or a massive farm. In the scope of gardening with Alzheimer’s, it is probably best to stick to the easy-to-grow plants that require minimal maintenance, such as herbs, tomatoes, or flowers. We recommend planting in container gardens, raised beds, or grow bags to create an even easier-to-manage garden than traditional garden beds.
  • Create a safe and peaceful environment: It is important to create a safe, comfortable, and relaxed gardening environment for someone with Alzheimer’s disease to enjoy. Make sure to remove any hazardous materials, such as sharp tools or chemicals, and ensure that pathways are clear and easy to navigate for people who may be in a wheelchair or utilizing a walker or a cane. 
  • Make the garden a sensory experience: Some of the best forms of therapy for the brain are creating sensations that bring back memories or calm the nervous system. Gardening is one of the best ways to engage the senses, as it activates touch, smell, sight, sound, and even taste. Planting fragrant flowers and herbs activates one’s sense of smell and can bring back memories from another time. Running water or birds chirping, as well as the sound of the wind, can provide a soothing sensation to alleviate anxiety and instill calamity. A garden with different herbs, vegetables, and flowers creates a stimulant for the eyes and brings a vivid, energetic feel to anyone who observes the colors and textures. Touching the dirt and soil when planting, as well as weeding and pruning your garden, is a source of grounding and brings the touch back to the vibrations of the earth. Finally, harvesting your herbs and vegetables provides a sense of taste, allowing one to feel the satisfaction and joy of eating from their very own garden. Encourage your loved one to touch, smell, and taste the plants.
  • Involve them in the process: Gardening can be a meaningful way for individuals with Alzheimer’s to contribute to a project and feel a sense of accomplishment. Encourage your loved one to help with planting, watering, and harvesting, and provide simple instructions and guidance as needed. It is possible that gardening will bring back memories and sensations that they used to remember, so allow them to lead the way in their experience. 
  • Use gardening as a form of therapy: Gardening has been shown to have therapeutic benefits for people with Alzheimer’s. It can help reduce anxiety and depression, improve cognitive function, and provide a sense of purpose. Consider working with a horticultural therapist who can help create a customized gardening program for someone struggling with dementia. 
  • Make your garden a social space: Gardening can be a social activity, too. Invite family members or friends to join in on the gardening process, or consider joining a local gardening club or community garden. This can provide opportunities for social interaction and a sense of community.

Ultimately, gardening is a sensory and therapeutic activity for people of all abilities. No matter what challenge someone is faced with, Alzheimer’s or Down Syndrome or diabetes, and more, the act of engaging and spending time in nature can be a wholesome and important activity to calm and cultivate the mind and body. 

By creating a safe environment, focusing on sensory experiences, involving your loved one in the process, using gardening as a form of therapy, and making it social, you can help people with Alzheimer’s experience the many benefits of gardening.

The mission of Gardenuity is and has always been to make gardens and gardening experiences accessible to everyone; wherever they live, work, and play. The three pillars that define our who and our why are physical health, mental health, and the health of the planet. With every garden planted comes an opportunity to better the environment and your own personal well-being. Nurturing your own garden, wherever it is, is an opportunity to create meaningful moments that are rich in association, promote good healthy habits, and are reminders to the magic of the changing seasons.