Allotments, community and dementia

How tending a Brighton allotment is helping people living with dementia to connect to the world – and people – around them.

An allotment with steps and a compost loo might not be the obvious place to take older people living with dementia for a morning out. But for a group of Brighton and Hove residents, led by Livability’s Associate on Dementia Charlotte Overton-Hart, it’s become one of their favourite outings.

“There’s a growing evidence base that people living with dementia benefit from time outdoors, and I was asked if I’d be interested in developing some allotment sessions locally,” says Charlotte. “The project had initially been refused funding because it wasn’t deemed a dementia-friendly space, but I did a risk assessment and felt sure we could make the space work.”

At the second attempt, funding came through and Charlotte launched a series of outdoor sessions at the allotment for people living with dementia and their carers. Attendees heard about the Dementia Friendly Gardening group through social care networks, via the community or voluntary sector.

UK-wide, around 800,000 people are living with dementia, at a cost of around £23bn a year to the NHS, local authorities and families. With the number of people with the disease predicted to rise to over one million by 2021, government recommendations for dementia care include “activities of daily living that maximise independent activity, adapt and enhance function and minimise need for support”.* Studies cite gardening activity as one which yields high level patient/carer satisfaction with a possible positive impact on care costs.**

Experiencing the seasons

“This project is all based around experiencing the seasons and this very much guides the activities we do,” explains Charlotte. People turn up at around 10.30am and the two-hour session kicks off with an invitation for everyone to share one thing they love about the season. A choice of activities follows: “It could be harvesting lavender or chillies, or doing some weeding. There’s always a table-top activity too, and people work one to one or in a group.”

Towards the end of the morning, everyone gathers for a cup of tea made over a fire “and something to eat, often something from the allotment, so we’ve had apple and blackberries, or jam made from the fruit trees,” Charlotte says. This session together is a particularly special time: “We celebrate what we have enjoyed about that season, with a very gentle recap about what people have said they loved, and we flag up some high points of the morning to celebrate that time together. There’s no pressure to remember particular things but very often people are at their most comfortable at the end of the session and it’s a real privilege to witness that.”

The garden setting helps people to develop a relationship with living things, but at the same time, nature doesn’t demand anything from you, which helps recovery from mental fatigue and reduces stress levels.

Charlotte sees individuals’ wellbeing bloom through the stimulus and interaction of sharing a task and experiencing nature, however they choose to take part. “One woman had lost confidence and was nervous about leaving her house. That time we were making lavender bags and later she said she’d forgotten how much she loved lavender and she was going to buy a plant for home. She taught me the names of lots of plants, and was such a help to me. Her activity was mostly at a table, sitting trimming the lavender, but for her, it had the same positive effect as a more active task – we were just picking up on what barriers needed to be removed to support her.”

Even the allotment’s compost loo turned out to be an unexpected plus: “One person attending had lived in East Africa, and another was from rural Ireland and said it was just like home! It ended up unintentionally being the catalyst for a reminiscence activity.”

The sessions are as important for the carers who attend, who benefit from taking part in a positive activity with the person living with dementia. “One woman said her mother was staying with her for six weeks, and the time spent on the allotment was the best morning they had out of the whole stay. She’d seen a side to her mum that she thought had long since been lost. That was very precious.”

Why does it help?

Dr Anna Sweeney, horticultural therapist at Livability Holton Lee, who works with an increasing number of people living with dementia, outlines facets of gardening which benefit those with the disease. “The garden setting helps people to develop a relationship with living things, but at the same time, nature doesn’t demand anything from you, which helps recovery from mental fatigue and reduces stress levels. Secondly, fascination theory deals with how nature stimulates and helps people to connect with others through a shared experience. The familiarity of gardening activities also prompts memory and stimulates conversation, which is a key part of horticultural therapy.”

Tapping the positive effect of connecting with nature can take place in many settings in the community, or even at home, Charlotte suggests. “Getting out to a garden centre or park is great for someone living with dementia, just being led by the seasons around you. If people can’t or don’t want to go out, there are table-top activities, like sowing or potting up herbs, including supermarket ones, or bringing a different seasonal plant to the person each time. Making something part of a routine, like having a regular time to watch a bird table, and putting out food for birds, can be almost like a meditation, and a kind of provision that the person living with dementia is giving. To have a direct contact with something green, something from nature, is very powerful sensory experience for everyone.”

*UK National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2011
**Detweiler et al 2012; Gitlin et al, 2012

Charlotte Overton-Hart is Livability’s Associate on Dementia. Charlotte has a background in arts and humanities and adult social care and is currently a Reminiscence Facilitator, running sessions both one to one as well as with families and groups. She is developing a tool to help people living with dementia to tell their life story, and is collaborating with a community allotment to run dementia-inclusive gardening sessions throughout the year. Charlotte is currently studying for an MA in Bibliotherapy which explores how stories, poetry and literature can help people who are living with dementia.

Livability offers audits, training and mentorship services to Christians, churches and other Christian organisations that will help them to provide dementia friendly practice. Find out about our Dementia Friendly Churches event here.

Livability and Alzheimer’s Society have worked together to create a new church resource, Developing Dementia-Friendly Churches, which offers advice to help churches create welcoming and accessible communities for those living with dementia. Find out more.