In the United States alone, nearly five million people are living with dementia. This number is only going to increase as today’s elderly population is living longer due to advances in modern medicine, an irony considering modern medicine has been able to accomplish very little when it comes to diseases that cause deterioration of the mind. To put the numbers into perspective, consider this: If you live to be 85 years old, your odds of acquiring dementia are one in two. In fact, dementia is the number one reason to place oneself or a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility.
Fortunately, though, advances in the way senior living facilities are designed – specifically the implementation of landscape architecture outside property grounds – have been considered by medical industry experts as a blessing for those affected by dementia and other cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s Disease. Quite possibly, the most popular way to achieve a greater quality of life for residents of senior living facilities is to build a dementia garden.
What is the difference between a dementia garden and a regular garden?
The main focuses of a dementia garden should be reflection and meditation, not the physical act of gardening as with a traditional garden. Often times, dementia and Alzheimer’s patients experience confusion, which can ultimately lead to violence and severe aggression. Therefore, water features that provide calming effects are fundamental in dementia gardens, according to Director of Landscape Architecture at Pi Architects in Austin, Texas, Patrick Smith, ASLA, LEED AP. “There’s been a lot of research lately on brain plasticity; so when a part of the brain that used to provide a certain function stops providing for that function, we now understand how to provide opportunities for stimulus.”
Bottom line: Patients with dementia can exercise their brains through sensory involvement in nature, such as feeling a gentle breeze, smelling familiar flowers, touching cool or warm water, etc. Many senior housing facility owners and operators across the nation are noticing the difference a dementia garden makes in their residents’ demeanor, as well as the way they interact with other residents and staff members. However, a dementia garden that is designed poorly can be more of a detriment than a benefit. For that reason, a professional landscape architect should always be consulted before implementing a dementia garden.
Some of the requirements and considerations for a dementia garden include:
1. Pathways need to be wide enough for wheelchair access with no or very slight inclines.
2. Walkways should be either circular or figure-eight shaped, so patients do not wander off.
3. Dementia gardens should have plenty of light for those who have trouble with vision.
4. Shady, dark areas should be avoided, as they can startle residents.
5. Plants should be colorful, fragrant and non-toxic.