Gardens for life

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Sarah Thornton discovers that gardening has numerous benefits for older people far beyond providing cut flowers and vegetables.

The latest census confirms what we already know; New Zealand has an aging population. The number of people aged 65 and over has doubled since 1980 and is likely to double again to around 1.2 million over the next 30 years.

Gardening is a way to keep healthy and active in our golden years and the benefits are numerous, whether your garden is a quarter-acre plot or a few containers on a small balcony.

Gardening has many health and therapeutic benefits for older people. Apart from providing beautiful vases full of flowers or nutritious produce, gardening can be an enjoyable form of exercise, which can improve mobility and flexibility. It can also help increase endurance and strength, and help to prevent diseases like osteoporosis. And tinkering around in your flower bed or tending to your container plants may reduce stress and promote relaxation.

Research published recently in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that pottering in the garden or fixing up the house have been linked to a longer life in a study of people over the age of 60. Older people can struggle to exercise vigorously, with the study reporting that simply getting off the sofa and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle was a lifesaver with the risk of heart attacks and strokes cut significantly.

Other research suggests that the therapeutic qualities of gardens are becoming more recognised as a way to improve the health of those suffering from dementia and Alzheimers. Research gathered by the nursery industry confirms that spending
time in the garden may go some way to help soothe the agitation that commonly strikes people with dementia. Gardening can also provide sufferers with a much-wanted sense of control, which can also assist with social interaction.

Invaluable around hospitals and care homes, gardens are places of peace and quiet without overwhelming visual stimulation, a place for dementia sufferers and their carers
to spend time together.

Of course gardens are just as important for older people who are still independent and healthy. On the edge of town in Hastings is Summerset in the Orchard, an independent living village with more than 200 residents living in around 150 properties, most with gardens of different shapes and sizes. The average age of the residents is 77, and according to Village Manager Allan den Boer, gardening for older people delivers a range of physical and mental benefits.

“Gardens are important. Getting out in the garden and getting your hands dirty brings exercise and pleasure. Our residents get enjoyment from having a smart and beautiful garden surrounding their homes, which has a flow-on effect for other residents in the Village. They are mostly flower gardens, although some of the residents do have some vegetable gardens planted. With the vegetable gardens we have a resource consent requirement that they are raised, which has had a beneficial result as they are easier to manage when they are off the ground,” he says.

At Summerset residents are encouraged to have a garden and can choose either to plant and tend their own plots, or opt to have the Village’s gardeners do it for them. Either way, the gardens provide benefits for the residents whilst also creating a colourful and beautiful village environment.

Gardening can improve quality of life for young and old alike. An attractive outdoor space gives people the opportunity to be physically active, feel unrestrained and connect with nature.

For those who are older, gardening can keep you in shape. In the journal HortScience, American researchers discovered that among the health benefits of gardening is keeping older hands strong and nimble. They found that older adults who are gardeners have better hand strength and pinch force, which is a big concern as people age.

Whether it’s the benefit of improved self-esteem, physical strength and flexibility or simply a place for us to relax and enjoy beautiful surroundings, gardening can put life in our years.

Easy does it!
If you are thinking about getting out in the garden, here are some suggestions to make it easier on your body:

  • Use vertical planting along walls or with trellis to make your plants more accessible for maintaining and harvesting.
  • Avoid bending and stooping by planting in raised beds.
  • Retractable hanging baskets are available from garden centres and containers on castors make it easier to move your garden plants around.
  • Some hardware shops and garden centres stock equipment that is more user-friendly, such as lightweight tools or trowels with special handles for those with arthritis.
  • You can modify your existing tools by wrapping the handles with foam, tape and plastic tubing to make them more comfortable to use.
  • Tools with longer handles can make life easier for gardeners at any age.

Village people

Summerset in the Orchard retirement village residents Ted and Val are confirmation that gardening brings long-term health benefits.

Model-slim Val is a vivacious 77 year old, while 82 year old Ted would easily pass for ten years younger and still works part time as a vineyard manager. He might live in a retirement village, but he has no plans to retire just yet. The day we visited he had just come home from an early morning stint on the tractor.

Ted and Val have always been gardeners. “You can tell from the bruises on my legs that I’m a gardener!” she laughs. Previously, the couple owned a large coastal garden with everything from roses to a large vege patch and although their current garden doesn’t have vege beds, they say that may change in the near future.

Ted and Val’s garden is one of the largest in the Village. Last year they won the village’s award for the best garden and this year, they won the competition for the most colourful garden.

Val says the garden is mainly Ted’s doing, but it does keep her busy while he is at work, spending many happy hours keeping it tidy with her loyal cat following her around. “I find it very therapeutic,” she says. “And it’s wonderful how a particular perfume will spark a certain memory or thoughts of people.”

The pair enjoys the fact that their garden is a source of pleasure not only for themselves, but for the other Village residents, getting “lots of lovely comments from our neighbours”. They are clearly a source of inspiration as well. While we chat, a neighbour walks by and Ted offers friendly advice on hedge trimming.

“We are all encouraged to garden and the rule is that if you want to put in your own garden, you must look after it yourself. Although in saying that, the Village’s landscape gardener will mow the lawns and do the edges” says Ted, “but for the most part we do it all ourselves. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”




Summerset residents are encouraged to have a garden

An attractive outdoor space gives people the opportunity to be physically active, feel unrestrained and connect with nature.