Gardening as therapy for caregivers and their care partners

Senior couple gardening in the garden

Clipping vegetables and watering flowers can do wonders for the soul and have a profound effect on a stressed physiology. Horticultural therapy is a health-care specialty that uses gardening to promote physical and emotional health by creating a peaceful oasis amid the challenges of Alzheimer’s disease, or any other caregiving situation.

Therapy gardens encourage memory-impaired people and their caregivers to take a moment to smell the roses and perform tasks that magically momentarily take away their cares and worries. You might already being working in the garden, which is a natural balm for these anxiety-filled days.

If you are caregiving for a loved one at home, gardening is a great opportunity for you and your care partner to spend time outdoors, connect through memories that might arise, and de-stress. You’ll also gain the satisfaction of accomplishing something that will, hopefully, provide you with beauty, sweet scents, and/or food!

Here are some ways to include your care partner so that you both benefit—from the “Horticulture Therapy by horticulurual therapist Pam Catlin, chapter 17 in my book “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia.


Throughout the ages people have connected over food and the garden setting provides an abundance of taste experiences through edible flowers, herbs, and vegetables.  Not all non-poisonous flowers are tasty or have a pleasing texture, however.  Some tried and true edible flowers are nasturtiums, lavender, day lilies, roses, tulips, pansies and violas.  The flowers can be used in salads, baking, decorating cakes and so much more. In caring for these flowers, chemical pesticides must be avoided.

Herbs and vegetables are a great addition to a garden and they provide another taste experience for the gardener.  Examples of easy to grow herbs are basil, chives, mint, oregano, parsley and rosemary.  Some are even perennials that will come back each year. These herbs might be enjoyed by being mixed into plain yogurt or softened cream cheese to create an easy dip to spread on a cracker.  When selecting vegetables, keep in mind that all of the solanaceous family (tomatoes and eggplant) have toxic foliage.  With close supervision, they can still be planted as most gardeners love a beautiful ripe tomato.

For those who have retained their olfactory senses, just running hands over herb plants provides a fragrance to inhale and enjoy.  Scented geraniums, grown for their foliage and not their bloom, date back to Victorian times and are now available in most nurseries in a variety of fragrances including but not limited to citrus, chocolate and rose. Particularly fragrant flowers to include in your garden are sweet alyssum, heliotrope, pansies and cosmos.

When selecting plants to stimulate the visual senses, it is important to remember that bright colors such as reds, pinks and yellows are more easily seen by older eyes than subtle, pastel colors or white.   Don’t forget interesting leaf patterns when looking for visual stimuli.  Unusual leaf patterns and colors can be found in coleus, Rex begonias and some grasses, such as zebra grass.

Consider adding some auditory elements to the garden.  Wind chimes near the patio door can assist in orienting an individual to the door’s location.  Grasses, trees, plants with seed pods, water features and bird feeders can all add a variety of pleasant sounds to the garden.

As the other senses fade, tactile stimulation becomes an important part of the gardening experience.  Selections that are surprisingly soft to the touch are dusty miller, African fountain grass and lamb’s ears.  Smooth skinned succulents provide tactile interest and can be grown indoors and (weather permitting) outdoors.  Placing plants with texture near the edges of containers or beds is an invitation to garden visitors to touch and feel as they move through the outdoor space.  If the gardener with cognitive issues is not responsive to the stimuli when touching with their fingers try running a fuzzy leaf across the cheek.  The apple of the cheek is filled with tiny nerve endings that will often be more receptive than the nerve endings in older fingers.

What you need to set up a therapy garden in your yard or porch

As the person with memory loss advances in his or her disease process, physical balance tends to become a challenge. an effective way to create a safe gardening experience is to elevate the growing areas either through raised beds or large ports. For those able to stand for short periods of time, a variety of planter heights would be ideal to support gardening while standing or sitting. rEcommended dimensions for planter height is 2′ – 2 1/2′ for sitting or 3′ – 3 1/2′ for standing. Acceptable dimensions for widths are 2′ if accessible from only one side or 4/ if accessible from all sides.

If the gardener has limited reach, avoid building materials such as bricks or block as it would be difficult to reach the soil to plant. It’s a good idea to measure what would be comfortable for the user before constructing the garden. Growing in pots or raised beds requires good planting mixes (combination of peat moss, topsoil and sand or perlite or a good quality soilless mix), regular fertilizing and plants that are no taller than 3′.

These days, many large pots are lightweight and easy to move andn place prior to filling with soil mix. Pots can be placed on rolling saucers, provided the wheels have brakes, or on pavers to help raise

Successful Plants

There are a number of tried and true plants that are safe for the garden.  For cool weather gardening, calendulas, pansies/violas, and stock add bright color.  Cool season vegetables are broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, lettuce, peas, radishes and spinach. Suggested plants for the warm season shade garden are coleus, impatiens, begonias and mint.  Good plants for warm season sunny locations would be alyssum, dusty miller, geraniums, marigolds, purple cup flower, petunias, portulaca, snapdragons, zinnias, most herbs other than mint and most vegetables other than those mentioned for cool season planting.   Bush varieties of squashes and cucumbers are best suited for raised beds and pots, as are some varieties of tomatoes.

A piece of advice when creating a garden space is to start small.  The primary purpose of this growing area is to provide peace of mind and an avenue of connection for the person with memory loss and those providing care, not food production.  A garden that provides a balance of physical activity and just being in nature is a perfect addition.


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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Easy ways to calm down crazy full moon behaviors

ヨガThe human body is 55 to 78% water (depending on sex and age) so it makes sense that the gravitational pull of the moon would affect us, right?  Many scientists point out that the biological tide theory doesn’t hold. On The Skeptics Dictionary website Robert Todd Carroll says, “Given the minute and bounded mass of fluid contained within the human body, compared to the enormous and free-flowing mass of ocean water, and given the enormous distance to the moon, the lunar pull on the human body is negligible.”

Theories about the moon’s influence on animal behavior are more widely accepted. Although the topic of whether or not the moon affects human behavior is controversial, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence and some scientific evidence indicating that it does.

I, for one, have a difficult time sleeping around the full moon. And my husband, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, exhibited more agitated behavior when the moon was full.

Studies have shown that the lunar cycle has an impact on fertility, menstruation, and birth rate.  Admittance to hospitals and emergency units due to cardiovascular and acute coronary events, arterial hemorrhages in the stomach and esophagus, diarrhea, and urinary retention correlate with moon phases. Other events linked to human behavior, such as traffic accidents, crimes, and suicides, seem to be influenced by the lunar cycle.

In the 1600’s Sr. William Hale, a distinguished British physician and medical biographer, wrote, “The moon has a great influence in all diseases of the brain, especially dementia.” The British Lunacy Act of 1842, which dismissed crazy behavior as being caused by the full moon, built on his theory.  In fact, as recently as 1940 a British soldier who was charged with murder pleaded “moon madness.”

Alan M. Beck of Purdue University conducted a longitudinal study to objectively examine the lunar influence on the frequency, duration, and intensity of behaviors in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

He examined wandering, anxiety, physical aggression, and verbal confrontation. His study concluded that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease did, in fact, exhibit significantly more erratic behaviors during periods of the full moon, and that these behaviors were of greater duration during that time. The objective analysis that a lunar influence on behavior in Alzheimer’s individuals exists validates a long-standing belief held by many healthcare providers.

If you’re a caregiver for someone with dementia, you’ve probably seen some odd behavior in your loved one around the full moon. And if you have trouble sleeping or feel restless or anxious during the full-moon, you’ve personally noticed the effects.

Here are some ways to calm the nerves and odd behaviors during the full moon or anytime.

From Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia--“Aromatherapy” chapter 18 by Laraine Kyle Pounds, RN, MSN, BSN, CMT.

Aromatherapy can be a resource of comfort to you and your care partner by providing an easy, natural way to reduce stress and anxiety and uplift mood. The following oils can be used in a diffuser, or put in a bath or fragrance free moisturizer. They can also be sprayed on a pillow or handkerchief.

Citrus oils are generally refreshing and uplifting for the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for odor management and appetite support. Consider: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange.

Floral oils are often used as a personal fragrance and are useful to relieve anxiety, depression, and irritability. These oils are useful as an inhaler, in a body lotion, and for the bath. Consider: clary sage, geranium, lavender, rose, and ylang ylang.

Tree oils are revitalizing with immune boosting properties, ease respiratory congestion, and are supportive to breathing ease. They are useful for pain relief, skin infections, and odor management, and can relieve nervous exhaustion and depression. Consider: eucalyptus (Eucalytpus citriodora or globulus), pine needle, sandalwood, or Tea Tree.


Herbal remedies (from chapter 31, Nutritional Support for Caregivers, in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”

A nervine is a plant remedy that has a beneficial effect upon the nervous system.  Nervines are especially useful during times of stress because they have a strong relaxing and calming effect without producing a dulling, “hang-over” side effect.  They also tone and restore the nervous system to a more balanced state.  Some nervines are also anti-spasmodic, meaning they relax the peripheral nerves and the muscle tissue, which in turn has a relaxing effect on the whole system.

The main types of nervines are tonics, relaxants, and stimulants.

  • Nervine Tonics – are particularly helpful for strengthening the nervous system and restoring balance. In addition to having a relaxing effect, they have a vaso-dilating action on the blood vessels of the brain.  This increases oxygen availability to brain cells and helps with mental agility and mood.
  • Nervine Relaxants – are especially beneficial for short-term use, for example in treating mild depression or acute anxiety. “This group of nervines are most important in times of stress and confusion, alleviating many of the accompanying symptoms. They should always be used in a broad holistic way, not simply to tranquillize.  Too much tranquilizing, even that achieved through herbal medication, can in time deplete and weigh heavily on the whole nervous system,” says renown herbalist David Hoffman.
  • Nervine Stimulants– are used as a restorative “pick-me-up” when you need an energetic boost without that revved up feeling produced by caffeine.

Recommended nervines:

  • Passion flower- helps soothe anxiety, insomnia, tension headaches, muscle aches and spasms, pain, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and helps alleviate anger and lower blood pressure.
  • Skullcap – is antispasmodic and relaxing and is recommended to relieve headaches, mood swings, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and nervous tension and exhaustion.

The next time you’re feeling nervous, agitated, restless or hyped up, calm your nerves with a nervine herb or aromatherapy. If your loved one has Alzheimer’s or dementia and is on medication, please check with the physician to make sure they do not interact with the nervine herbs.  Use pure essential aromatherapy oils to lower risk of allergy.

If all else fails, you can always go outside and howl at the moon.

 

Studies showing we are affected by the full moon

1. More babies are born around the full moon. A study in Kyoto, Japan looked at 1007 natural births and found there was significant increase in births when the moon was closest to the earth. Results of this study suggest that the gravitational pull of the Moon has an  influence on the frequency of births.

2. Do you have trouble sleeping around the full moon? Sleep researcher Christian Cajochen at the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel in Switzerland conducted a four-year lab study to see if he could show that it is physiologically true that many people have difficulty sleeping during the full moon.  His researchers monitored the brain activity, eye movements and hormone secretions of 33 volunteers in the lab while the participants slept. All the participants were healthy, good sleepers, and did not take any drugs or medication.Unexpectedly, the scientists found “the lunar cycle seems to influence human sleep, even when one does not see the moon and is not aware of the actual moon phase,” Cajochen said. After reviewing their data, the scientists found during the time of the full moon, brain activity related to deep sleep dropped by 30 percent. People also took five minutes longer on average to fall asleep, and they slept for 20 minutes less overall on full-moon nights. The volunteers felt as though their sleep was poorer when the moon was full, and they showed diminished levels of melatonin, a hormone known to regulate sleep and wake cycles. “It took me more than four years until I decided to publish the results, because I did not believe it myself,” Cajochen told LiveScience. “I was really skeptical about the finding, and I would love to see a replication.”


Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.