Creating outdoor spaces for people with Dementia
Creating a beautiful space for people with memory loss allows them to leave behind the stress often caused by dementia. It is a moment when they can just enjoy and release stress hormones. Sensory gardens can prove helpful. When a person is engaging their senses they are less likely to be worrying or stressed. Create a landscape with many opportunities, to look, touch, smell, hear and taste.
When designing an outdoor space for people with dementia here are some things to keep in mind.
Different people have different needs. Here you will find guidelines, ideas, and suggestions that I have learned over the years working with a wide variety of people and varying needs. It is always best to thoughtfully consider your own needs and the abilities of all who will use the space. I find information from occupational therapists and nurses who work with the individual patients I am designing for invaluable. A collaborative design process is optimal.
Create one clear path. with a destination and a loop to return. If someone forgets why they are outside or what they were going to do it is good to create one clear path. If there are choices or multiple paths it may become confusing for people with memory loss.
Use old fashioned plants. Use plants that will feel familiar to an older generation. Someone may feel stressed about forgetting details, names, faces, etc, but seeing a rose, or lilac is likely to bring back good memories.
Use familiar objects in the landscape. When looking for objects or art in the landscape for people with memory loss consider familiar objects like an old wheelbarrow, clothesline, or mailbox. These items will put people at ease and allow them to enjoy the space more. You could also use the mailbox as a place to put bird or plant identification sheets, a journal or favorite poems or songs. I’ve done such a thing and labeled it the portal of inspiration and outlined, “You’ve got mail” on the outside to encourage people to look inside.
Include instructions. Near the doorway to enter the garden you could place a jacket, hat, boots, sunscreen, etc, and put a sign saying “garden this way” as a visual cue. Throughout the garden, you could add signs saying, “this way”, “rest here”, “smell this”, “touch this”.
Engage the senses. This brings me to the next point. As I noted above, engaging the senses has a positive effect on people, especially people with memory loss.
Sight: Create areas of visual interest. Be sure to make the wayfinding and orientation easy. One clear looping path. Often I would encourage the concept of prospect and refuge, now you see it now you don’t, it makes people curious and encourages them to keep walking along the path. This concept is not so helpful for people with dementia. It can be confusing. Include objects or art of visual interest. Vary the plantings in size, color, and texture. I often would suggest using bright colors with an older population as their eyesight diminishes over time. However, if someone experiences agitation, PTSD, or a similar condition use a soothing color palette such as white, blue, and purple. Adding wildlife-friendly elements would also add to the sensory experience. Watching birds and squirrels for example can be both soothing and entertaining.
Sound: There are many ways to add sound to a landscape. Ornamental grasses often create a soft rustling sound that is soothing and calming. Bird-friendly elements can invite the pleasant sounds of birds. Water is a wonderful element to add sound. Trickling or running water is known to be both soothing and energizing. Windchimes are a common way to add sound. Be sure that the ongoing sound would be welcomed. Many chimes can become annoying over time.
Smell: Fragrant plants are a wonderful element to a sensory garden. There are many common plants such as roses and lilacs. Herbs such as rosemary and lavender would be easy to work into the landscape. There are studies showing that rosemary benefits people with memory loss. Consider adding an herb garden to the landscape. Here are some trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and herbs to consider in your fragrant landscape.
Taste: An herb garden can serve both the fragrant element and a tasting element in a landscape. There are many edible plants that can be incorporated into a landscape. Berries are among the easiest fruits. Consider using strawberries as a groundcover or create a more vertical element with a strawberry tower. This would allow an older person easier access to fruits. Vines such as hardy kiwi and concord grapes are easy to grow and can be trained on a trellis or fence. Blueberries are a handsome landscape shrub that can easily be worked into the landscape. You may have to net the berries as they get close to ripening if you do not want to share with the birds. Fruit trees often have beautiful flowers and could be reminiscent of an older generation, especially apple trees. Trees of course take longer to mature. Raised beds for herbs or vegetables would allow older people to interact with edibles more easily. Observing the progress of the plants as the fruit, smelling the herbs, or tasting the produce all make a case for waist-high raised beds. It might also be nice to have people plant the herbs or vegetables themselves. Whether they remember they planted them or not there is still a connection to the earth that is valuable.