The Benefits of Outdoor Spaces in Dementia Care Homes

The benefits of being in nature for our wellbeing makes intuitive sense to everyone. Evolutionarily, we are meant to be in nature, and once our connection with nature is restored, something inside us clicks: we are home. Tara Teubner, director at care home group Westgate Healthcare, says: “Getting outdoors is important for people of all ages and walks of life, and we know that spending time outdoors can lead to better mental health and a positive attitude.”

Especially for those who suffer from dementia, reconnecting with nature can have incredible benefits. Stephen Kaplan’s ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ points out that many attributes of modern-day life – such as computer screens, TV programmes and adverts – demand our attention in ways that drain us, whereas natural environments are less demanding on our direct attention. They evoke a sense of ‘soft fascination’, leaving us plenty of headspace for reflection, contemplation, and renewal.

The soothing natural environment, which allows the brain to wander and restore itself, is known to result in more relaxation with less agitation and distress in people with dementia.

Health Benefits

Being outside has plenty of physical health benefits for the elderly, such as:

– Increased levels of vitamin D through sunlight
– Lower levels of cortisol, the hormone related to stress
– Lower blood pressure, reducing the risk of a stroke, coronary heart disease and kidney failure
– Lowered inflammation levels, reducing discomfort from arthritis, stiffness and soreness

Mental Health Benefits

In terms of mental health, spending time in nature is known to result in:

– Decreased levels of anxiety and bad moods
– Improved self-esteem and moods
– Less feelings of helplessness and dependency on others
– Improved concentration

Social Benefits

Besides providing personal benefits in terms of health and mental health, outdoor spaces can help combat loneliness in the elderly as well. These are some of the ways in which access to a garden can help care home residents connect to their family, friends, the staff and each other:

– Providing a space for familiar activities such as leisurely walks and gardening
– Providing prompts for pleasant memories of the past

“Our teams across our care group encourage residents to get active and spend time in nature, so whether our residents have a love of wildlife, gardening, enjoying a nice outdoor meal, or simply soaking up a valuable source of vitamin D – we encourage every home to make the most of the warmer weather.” – Tara Teubner, Director at Westgate Healthcare

The Design Features of Dementia-Friendly Gardens

In order to be dementia-friendly, care home gardens should meet a few criteria that ensure an overall positive sensory impact:

Accessible Layout

A dementia-friendly garden should be easily accessible from the inside. Its entrances and pathways should be clearly visible and not be blocked by barriers like furniture or plant pots. For the garden to be accessible to people with reduced mobility, all surfaces should be level. Steps and steep levels should be avoided.

Simple, Circular Pathways

Pathways, ideally, should lead back to the point where they began and not have dead ends or sudden changes of direction. It’s recommended to avoid complicated patterns in the pathways that might cause residents to get confused or lose their balance. Try to avoid manholes and significant contrasts in colours, as residents with limited vision might see these as physical obstacles. Materials such as gravel or bark are not ideal for dementia gardens as they might make it hard for residents to navigate the space – instead, use flat, neutrally-coloured tiles without any complex patterns.

Sitting Areas

To cater to those with mobility issues, it’s crucial to provide plenty of sitting areas. These should consist of solid benches and space for a wheelchair and be sheltered from strong sun and wind. A patio or gazebo halfway can provide shelter from unexpected showers.

Sensory Garden Plants

A key characteristic of dementia gardens is that they provide an experience for all the senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Plants such as lavender, rosemary, lemon sage, mint, jasmine, edible berries or roses provide delight to those witnessing them and can conjure precious memories. Poisonous plants, however, should be avoided at all cost – those with dementia might not be aware of what’s edible or not.

Find Care Homes with a Dementia Garden

If you or a loved one need specialist dementia care, it’s favourable to find a care home with a garden. At Riverdale Care Home in Braintree, for example, residents can enjoy a sensory courtyard as well as the tranquil, natural but safe surroundings at the bank of the River Brain. Staff are trained to care for those with dementia, and the emphasis here is on safety and slowing the progress of this mental disability.

“Each of our care homes have charming gardens that are equipped for every resident”, says Tara Teubner. “We know that there is no better place to be on a nice day than outside.”