One of the most difficult aspects of watching someone go through dementia is the slow loss of memory, but new research shows that having access to a garden can help dementia sufferers recover forgotten experiences and memories.
The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK and published this month in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association, involved scientists carrying out a systematic review of previous research that looked at dementia patients, their lives, and the facilities in which they live.
What researchers found was that providing outdoor spaces for dementia sufferers in residential care tended to facilitate an improved sense of well-being where, so long as those spaces were properly managed, dementia sufferers could relax, enjoy the environment and let go of the agitation they might feel while in-doors and constantly being challenged by their condition.
What’s more, the researchers found that outdoor spaces and in particular gardens provided a relaxed setting for meeting people and interacting with loved ones. The data showed that not only could this improve well-being for patients, it also provided a strong environment in which they could begin to recover lost memories, making connections with family members and visitors that they had previously lost.
The research involved residents at 11 UK care homes and incorporated data from elderly care services in America, China and Europe, and in total included 17 studies (9 quantitative, 7 qualitative, and 1 mixed methods). While the quantitative studies were labeled as poor by the researchers they did at least show evidence enough of a significant decrease in agitation among patients who were provided gardens in which to explore and interact.
The research attempted to gauge patient wellbeing against how these gardens were used, how they were thought to have an effect on patients, and indeed how they might also be negatively perceived–for instance, gardens were sometimes thought of as a potential hazard for patients suffering dementia. Perceptions were also impacted by limited staff time as, in order to avoid hazards, patients with significant cognitive impairment had to be monitored closely, taking staff away from other duties.
However this research, which is really the first of its kind to examine how having access to garden spaces might benefit care home residents with dementia, does seem to demonstrate that there is a measurable therapeutic effect that is at the very least worth more study, particularly because there are some dementia patients for whom medications do not work. This kind of outdoor therapy, providing tranquil settings and a stimulating but not overbearing environment, might therefore represent one way in which carers can begin to help center patients, calm frustrated and aggressive behavior, and maybe even help uncover memories.
As such, lead researcher Rebecca Whear is quoted as saying: “There is an increasing interest in improving dementia symptoms without the use of drugs. We think that gardens could be benefiting dementia sufferers by providing them with sensory stimulation and an environment that triggers memories. They not only present an opportunity to relax in a calming setting, but also to remember skills and habits that have brought enjoyment in the past.”
The researchers hope that their findings will prompt more in depth study on this topic. They also hope to affect change in current dementia care guidelines. These put an emphasis on the environment in which patients are housed. Yet, at the moment there is no strict guideline on the kinds of outdoor spaces that benefit patients the most. This research, then, points to gardens as one improvement from which care home residents might derive a host of benefits.
I suppose for all you nature lovers out there though, we really didn’t need to tell you that–but as ever, having the science confirm what we thought creates a solid platform for future change.
If you would like to find out ways we can all cut our risk of developing dementia, please click here.
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