Gardening and Exercise: Healthy Aging for Older Adults

CBR003130 mature market gardening

Mature Market Experts: more mature market news and stats more often: Gardening and Exercise, Healthy Aging for Older Adults – More often than not, the outdoor environment of a senior ‘retirement’ community is ignored and people focus on the attributes of a building’s interior. However, the activities that can be offered on the outside of a building are almost limitless, constrained only by the imagination, and not by a person’s age. We should encourage people to explore how the exterior environment can provide avenues for older adults to participate in physical activities that benefit them in many different ways. The stereotype, unfortunately, that older persons over the age of 65 are for the most part ill, dependent, mentally incompetent, unproductive and unattractive is alive and well. Nothing could be further from the truth, and fortunately this is changing thanks, in part, to the “Baby Boomers.” In actuality, those persons aged 65 and older represent one of the most diverse population segments, with everyone aging differently. While some of the oldest cohort (85 years and older) are frail and experiencing multiple chronic conditions, others are active and rate their health status as “good”.

In order to encourage older adults to exercise, active lifestyles need to be created in and around senior residences. Ultimately this will result in greater independence in the daily lives of a majority of the older adult population. There are a great number of programs—such as bike riding, hiking, birding, canoeing, etc.—that can be implemented to encourage older adults to become more involved in the outdoor environment.

Among these activities, one of the more personally rewarding programs is gardening. Gardening is the number one leisure activity in America, today. Studies have shown that many people 65 years and older are interested in gardening as a hobby. Everyone has had some interaction with gardening, whether it was tending to a house plant on a fire escape, blueberry picking along the side of the road or sharing fresh grown vegetables from the garden with family and/or friends. The percent of seniors interested in gardening and related activities has increased significantly over the past years and the number is expected to continue to increase as the “Boomers” age. That generation is more inclined to expect organic vegetables, health foods, and other natural products as part of their daily living.

There are reasons why gardening should be a natural part of a senior living community. It is a highly visible hobby in which everyone can participate, either passively or actively. And there is always one person that is a ‘resident expert’ who has had previous gardening experience and can lend advice. If a person has never experienced the joy of raising a plant, they can be encouraged to start small and build up gradually. The senior can begin with one tomato plant in either a container or in a small garden space. What person has not delighted in raising and ultimately sharing a fresh grown vegetable from their garden with family and/or friends?

Development of activity programs can be designed to meet the various needs of the seniors. Higher-functioning individuals who are physically active will be able to participate in a wide range of activities. Gardens can be located on-grade or at ground level, in order to take advantage of the larger growing areas. There can be minimal costs associated with the construction of smaller raised planting beds. Seniors residing in Assisted Living Residences may require a higher level of support. There can be garden spaces for Community Gardens located throughout the complex. However, there should be provisions for raised planters located closer to the residence. This will enable seniors who utilize wheelchairs and walkers to experience the joys of gardening nearer to the building. And seniors who are not able to actively participate can watch from windows or on a porch.

Accommodations for handicapped seniors should be incorporated into the overall design of garden activities in order to allow everyone to participate and feel a part of the program. Various levels of gardening can be introduced to encourage individuals to take part. Containers or raised planting beds are more easily accessed for people in wheel-chairs. Vegetable plants with brightly colored fruit and with a fragrance are good for the visually impaired. Ergonomically designed tools that are lightweight and have long handles make the job easier, especially for arthritic and wheelchair-bound seniors. Each person needs to experience his or her own unique sense of accomplishment. After all, the purpose of participating in an activity program is to promote better health, increase agility, maintain a sense of independence and feel better about oneself.

Gardens for special needs residents, Alzheimer’s and other memory-impaired patients, are another very specific level of programming. Gardens should be designed to meet the needs of the people at each stage of the disease. For example, plant material should be nontoxic for stage-three Alzheimer patients. Plants can be a wonderful tool for remembrance therapy. The tomato plant is widely recognized, has a very distinctive odor and the red fruit is attractive. Vegetables offer stimulation to almost all of the senses, therefore, they should be readily utilized in the garden.

The key to success in developing any activity program is achieving a level of motivation that stimulates a personal interest. There should be opportunities to interact with other people. We all like to meet friends in various settings. Education regarding the benefits of gardening can also be an important part of the program. Guest lecturers, how to/educational videos, magazine subscriptions, walking tours and classes can be part of the gardening program.

Individual goals should start small and be realistic. A person should not try to do more than they are able to the first few days. Moral support is also very important. Remind the senior of the benefits of physical activity and how participating will personally reward them. The same logic that motivates a person to participate in a group also motivates a person to pursue individual interests. Help the person set goals that can be achieved on a daily basis. Keep track of their progress so they can see the results of their efforts. Socialization, the enjoyment of nature and education all contribute to the success of any activity program.

Gardening involves many small tasks that encourage physical exercise. Bending, reaching, pulling, stretching are just a few of the movements that are required. A study conducted at Tufts University in Boston discovered a “threefold increase in muscle strength among frail, elderly nursing home residents aged 86 to 96 who exercised their legs on a weight machine over an eight week period.” (DiGilio1994) Seniors who have never been exposed to an exercise program continued even after the program has been concluded. They realized the importance of being physically active. As a result of their consistent efforts, they now have increased mobility, agility and energy and are experiencing increased independence.

The following list offers insight into just how beneficial exercise and physical activity can be:

• The risks of cardiovascular disease decrease dramatically
• Mental acuity increases, as more oxygen is available to the brain
• Proper weight is maintained
• Neurotransmitters are regulated, resulting in less depression and anxiety
• Digestion and gastrointestinal mobility is increased
• Flexibility and balance is improved
• Self-esteem is enhanced
• Individuals experience an increased emotional resiliency in response to life’s changes and losses
• A perception of positive health status contributes to an overall satisfaction with life

The ability to be outdoors and interact with nature also has been proven to have its own unique benefits. The natural production of Vitamin D occurs with exposure to sunlight. There are psychological benefits to interacting with the environment. Watching a beautiful sunset or experiencing the sunrise has a profound effect on mood and emotion. All of the senses are activated when you are outside. The smell of Lavender angostifolia (lavender), the sound of a bird’s song, looking at a chipmunk scurrying about for food, as well as touching the soft leaf of a plant such as Stachys byzantina (lambs ear) are all activities that excite the senses. Research supports the preceding findings and the results are significant.

It is also important to be needed. The act of gardening not only maintains a connection with nature, it creates a sense of dependency. When a senior raises a plant and is responsible for its care, that person develops a bond. Both need food, air, light and water as a basic minimum. A person also gains positive reinforcement from growing plants. We feel better about ourselves when we have accomplished a talk, such as growing a plant or harvesting vegetables.

Another indirect benefit of gardening is the promotion of quality sleep through natural means. Older adults suffer from a decreasing production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep. Many older adults tend to get sleepier in the early evening, around 8 pm, and then wake up at 4 am. This can be very frustrating because it offsets normal routines and disrupts schedules. Daily activities and regular exercise regulates hormones and bright natural light resets our biological clock. Exercise promotes peaceful, uninterrupted sleep and diminishes episodes of insomnia.

Senior residences should be designed to meet the needs of older adults who want to use the exterior environment. Some residences may offer a walking path and/or a few benches. The plant material, exterior furniture and other amenities must be suited to a specific use by the older resident. Whether creating a new project or upgrading an existing residence, it is important to incorporate the professional expertise of a Landscape Architect and a Gerontologist. These two professionals need to be involved from the onset, along with the Architect and Engineer, in the development of a new residence. The Landscape Architect is experienced in the selection of a site, including the placement of the building in a location that enhances the views to and from the building, minimizing impact on the existing environment and presenting a realistic construction budget. The Landscape Architect understands how to create environments suited to a person’s specific needs and is experienced in the art of problem solving. Functional and aesthetic perspectives are equally important to the success of any building. The Gerontologist understands the aging process and how to meet the needs of a particular age group when designing a senior residence. The physical, emotional and social aspects of the aging person must be considered. The Gerontologist works with the staff to tie together the multiple needs of a person successfully “aging in place”. The psychosocial dynamics of stimulating a person’s interest and engaging them in an activity is very important. The Gerontologist and Landscape Architect are vital links to the success of a project and are therefore integral parts of a design team.

An exciting aspect of the creation of outside areas that stimulate physical activity is envisioning how these spaces will evolve over the coming years. In the future, residents who participate in various activities will not resemble the residents today. The Baby Boomers, many of whom are currently caregivers for their parents, will demand a different set of standards for themselves in years to come. They are an active, mobile, environmentally conscious generation that will face today’s challenges in new and exciting ways. Comfortable exercise outfits and sneakers will replace walkers and orthopedic shoes. Health food and environmental programs will become industry standards. These predictions help to challenge our imagination and keep us focused on how we will create the living environments we ourselves will expect tomorrow.

About the Authors: Nancy Norton Carman, M.A. Gerontology, CMC and Jack Carman, FASLA, RLA

Jack Carman, owner, founder and president of Design for Generations, LLC, has over 20 years experience as a landscape architect. He is a nationally recognized expert in the design of therapeutic gardens, particularly Alzheimer’s gardens and outdoor environments for senior living communities. http://www.designforgenerations.com/

Note from Tom Mann: Gardening is America’s #1 hobby. Guess who makes up the biggest percentage of gardeners?

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