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Autumn – a time when the garden can bring the family together and create new memories

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Everyone wants to feel they contribute and have value to those around them and that’s no different for people living with dementia.

Bridget Penney, Care UK’s head of dementia, takes a look at how the garden can help you and your family make the most of the season’s gardening tasks as a way of teasing out conversations and memories.

“Autumn is a beautiful season full of glorious colours and fresh, crisp air. There’s growing evidence to show that being outside in the changing seasons improves the wellbeing of people living with dementia; it not only gives them exercise, but it gives them a greater sense of time and place.

“Getting out in the garden provides opportunities to share tasks and to talk about memories of gardens your loved one may have loved. Before you start work in the garden, why not talk about favourite flowers and what colours they would like to see in the garden. Many of our care homes have very active gardening clubs where residents come together to plan and work in the gardens, creating not only beautiful displays but also tasty vegetables. And the planning can be as enjoyable as actually getting out in the garden and getting your hands dirty.

“A visit to a local garden centre can be an excellent outing in autumn. Currently they are stacked with colourful packets of bulbs and seeds ready for planting for the coming spring. Encourage your loved one to pick a selection that means something to them. Don’t be put off by any unusual colour schemes, all flowers look wonderful, and they’ll feel empowered and happy to follow their creative thoughts.

“A trip to a garden centre is also a good chance to sit down over a cup of tea and talk about what you might like to do with the plants you’ve bought and reminisce about when they grew them before. Most people have memories of flowers from their childhood – bluebell walks, daffodils in spring and Mother’s Day bunches of tulips. The smell of hyacinths always reminds me of January as we would put bulbs into hyacinth vases in September and keep them in the dark, bringing them out after Christmas.

“Containers or raised beds make an excellent gardening environment for older people as they can sit on a stool or chair as they plant the bulbs. They’ve proved popular in our homes as they’re also accessible to people using wheelchairs. They’re very easy to maintain and you can encourage your relative to water and weed the containers so they have a sense of involvement when the flowers bloom.

“As dementia progresses, senses become less acute and you can help your loved one enjoy the garden by creating sensory elements to it that they can enjoy in the summer. Make sure the garden is bright with big, cheerful flowers. Try to opt for native or old cottage garden favourites that can stand the vagaries of our weather as well as being hardy enough to survive sometimes negligent gardeners. Marigolds, sunflowers and red hot pokers are favourites, along with the classic hollyhocks and foxgloves.

“To stimulate hearing, choose plants that make noise as the wind passes through them, such as bamboo stems and grasses – I love firecracker as it not only rustles but is a glorious red. Seedpods make interesting sounds as well; try campanula, campion or yellow rattle. Raking up the leaves together is also fun as the leaves crackle and clearing a lawn gives everyone a sense of achievement.

“Often touch and smell are the senses that remain after hearing and sight have begun to fail. It’s unusual to think of plants as having texture, but they do, and it’s possible to incorporate many types into your garden, from the soft feel of lamb’s ear, to trees with interesting bark such as birch. You can also incorporate rocks with moss and ferns, but be careful not plant anything that may be dangerous with spines, thorns, sharp tips or something that’s toxic – like spurges for example which can give a nasty rash. Plants like lemon balm or mints are perfect as they also give the opportunity to combine texture and smell, as their wonderful aromas are released as the leaves are rubbed.

“Smell is the most potent trigger of memories and so it’s worth putting extra thought into the fragrance in your garden, and use input from your loved one on this section. Daffodils and tulips perfume spring while lavender, honeysuckle, roses, stocks and sweet peas can fill the air with scent throughout the warmer months. Also consider setting up a herb garden. You can choose your own plants at the garden centre or many shops sell pre-planted decorative containers of mixed herbs. Not only are these attractive but, as taste diminishes with age, encouraging your loved one to add herbs to the pot is a lot healthier than shaking in tablespoons of salt.

“Remember to have fun - don’t worry about emulating Monty Don or Bunny Guinness, but instead concentrate on doing something that gives you and your relative a sense of achievement as well as creating a place you can enjoy together.”

Find out more about Care UK’s homes and the philosophy of activity based care

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