Horticulture therapy brightens the days of dementia patients on Sunshine Coast

By Kylie Bartholomew

Five older folk sit huddled around a patio table on a sunny Thursday morning. From the outside, they look like any group of keen gardeners.

But they are not. They have dementia. And this is horticulture therapy.

 Dementia patients talk about what they think about gardening(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

Horticultural therapist Cath Manuel is using gardening to enrich the lives of patients living with dementia on Queensland's Sunshine Coast.

Once a week she leads a group of up to six patients and two volunteers to plant seedlings or tend to a sensory garden at Carramar aged care facility at Tewantin.

"If they've gardened a lot in the past, we give them pots and tools and they know exactly what to do," Ms. Manuel said.

"But some of the others in the group just need that help because, from step one to two, they can sometimes forget what step one was."

Volunteer Denise helps dementia patient Reg with planting the seedlings
Volunteer Denise helps gardener Reg with the seedlings.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

Ms. Manuel said having a carer to patient ratio of 3:2 ensured the gardeners were not overwhelmed, stayed on task, and had a tangible item at the end of the session.

Volunteer Denise said gardening offered more than just therapeutic benefits.

"There's a social element too if people want that to happen, but there's also the ability to sit quietly and work on something," she said.

Allira, who has been a volunteer with Ms. Manuel since the program started two years ago, said the benefits were twofold.

"I just love being here with all these residents and helping them out ... I just love it to bits," she said.

Ms. Manuel said having the patients involved enabled a valuable sensory experience.

Dementia patient Dianna sits at dozens of seedlings sitting on top of the table.
Dementia patient Dianna enjoys the morning gardening sessions. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

"I can see them really just enjoying being in the moment of digging in the dirt. We could stand there for five minutes and just dig," she said.

"I can see the change in them in their face, their smiles, and if there's a bird we'll stop and look at the birds or listen to the birds, or a plane will fly over so we'll talk about that.

"It creates opportunities then for other conversations, and I can really see the physical change in them.

"That's where I think that gardening is so beneficial. It's that connecting with nature."

Step-by-step the key to reducing stress

A print-out of step-by-step instructions with pictures help dementia patients with planting seedlings.
Visual instructions help with the task.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

Scooping potting mix into a pot and preparing the hole for a seedling might be a relatively easy task for some, but for dementia patients, it can be confusing and overwhelming.

Ms. Manuel said a step-by-step visual instruction card helped to mitigate any stress and was a handy reference tool for the gardeners.

The activity is carefully planned and strategic.

"Once all the pots are filled [with potting mix], we'll clean up the potting mix and then bring out the flowers, so that just helps to stop any confusion around any of the activities we're doing," Ms Manuel said.

"We just don't want to overwhelm our gardeners with giving them too much to do."

One of the dementia gardeners waters the seedlings after they've been planted in pots.
Gardener Frank gives the seedlings a drink.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

Increasing demand for therapy benefits

A horticulturalist of more than 17 years, Ms. Manuel said seeing the benefits gardening had in her own life had led her to explore the role it could play in helping others, specifically dementia patients.

She completed an online course in Australia and pursued further professional development in the United Kingdom at the horticultural therapy organization, Thrive.

Ms. Manuel said the potential for how horticultural therapy could be used in the community was exciting.

Volunteer Allira and horticultural therapist Cath Manuel put the finishing touches on the seedlings.
Allira (L) has volunteered with Cath Manuel (R) since the program started two years ago.(ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)

"Gardening for dementia patients is a new, but a growing area because the number of memory support units is on the increase," she said.

Ms. Manuel said the scope for horticultural therapy in the community was exciting, with potential vocational, social and therapeutic, and rehabilitation benefits.

More than 20 seedlings planted into pots by the gardeners who have dementia.
A productive morning for the dementia gardeners with more than 20 seedlings planted. (ABC Sunshine Coast: Kylie Bartholomew)
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