Creating a dementia-friendly garden

How to make a garden more accessible for people living with dementia

For those living with a neurological condition such as dementia, plants and gardens provide a connection with the natural world. Gardens offer carers much-needed respite and people living with dementia a safe space to socialise and maintain their physical and mental wellbeing.

Dementia has become increasingly common. In our lifetimes, most of us will know someone who’s living with the condition. We’ll all have to confront it at some point, so making green spaces more accessible is really important

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

More than 900,000 people are estimated to be living with dementia in the UK, of which 40% feel lonely and 34% do not feel part of their community.

Taken from: Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

If you’re looking to adapt a garden for a loved one living with dementia, garden designer Charlie Hawkes and Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens, have shared some tips on how to get started.

1) Take a person-centred approach

Two people spending time together in the garden
Dementia is unique to the individual, so when creating a dementia-friendly garden, it’s important to spend some time figuring out the needs of the person you’re adapting it for.

If someone’s only just been diagnosed, it’s likely that they have full awareness of their condition, so begin by talking to them and including them in the process. What do they need and want from a space? Do they want colour, movement or the sound of water? What facilities are important?

Liza Griffin cared for her husband for many years, and has co-authored a guide on making community gardens more accessible for people living with dementia.

It’s about creating an environment where you can talk to people and take a person-centred approach. Include the person with dementia and their carer, and make them feel part of the decision-making process

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

“It might be about designing activities, or it might be providing a tranquil place where people can go and forget they are living with dementia and just enjoy being in the garden as well,” said Liza.

2) Future-proof your garden

Charlie Hawkes in The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space Garden
People often develop different challenges and thinking problems, such as difficulties with vision, language, behaviour and movement as the condition progresses. Think about the capacities of your loved ones and work with those, and also try to anticipate potential challenges that might appear down the line.

By following broader principles, a garden can be future-proofed to make sure it’s easy to interact with as you move forward with your experience of dementia

Charlie Hawkes, garden designer

Dementia is a progressive condition, which means that your loved one might experience additional symptoms as time goes on. For example, a person living with dementia may not experience any form of visual impairment initially but this might occur later on, so it’s worth considering this while you are designing or adapting the garden.

Garden designer Charlie Hawkes worked with The National Brain Appeal to create a Chelsea garden for people with rare forms of dementia.

The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space Garden needed to be more generic than if you were designing a garden at home specifically for the dementia you have. I wanted to open up the garden to lots of people, so I spoke to people who were living with or affected by dementia and drew out common themes, to make the garden as good as it could be,” said Charlie.

3) Create a single route around the garden

The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space has one route through the garden
Keep your garden simple in terms of spatial layout, and where possible, try to keep it level. People living with dementia can often feel quite lost, so you don’t want the garden layout to contribute to that. Having a layout that’s easy to navigate will be a huge benefit and help those living with dementia to feel safe and calm.

Bear in mind that someone with a memory led dementia may find themselves having moved from A to B, but might not remember the journey between those two places. Don’t create paths with dead ends or multiple routes, instead create one route with places to stop, which are immediately adjacent to the central pathway.

If the garden has a complex layout, with lots of routes, this could cause someone living with dementia to feel disorientated, so one of the key design elements is to have a single path or route around the garden with elements such as benches coming off them, but not leading them too far away

Charlie Hawkes, garden designer

Don’t make the space too uniform, as this can be disconcerting. Give each area of the garden their own unique character to help people locate themselves within the space. “There were three seating areas in the Chelsea garden, all of which had a structural shelter over them, and the edges of each structural shelter were painted a different bright colour. This meant that even though the language of the garden was consistent, each space had its own colour, which distinguished it from the others,” said Charlie.

4) Aim for a high contrast environment when designing for visual forms of dementia

Tulipa sprengeri
Rodgersia podophylla
Create a high contrast environment in your garden; make sure that the paving is all one colour and the furniture a different colour or material so that it stands out from the paving and the surrounding plants. Keep the structure of the furniture simple as complex things such as armrests and seatbacks can make them less accessible for someone with a visual form of dementia.

In the Chelsea garden, we had seatbacks, but they were a contrasting colour to the seat itself, and they didn’t have any armrests

Charlie Hawkes, garden designer

A visual form of dementia called posterior cortical atrophy led the design for Charlie’s 2023 Chelsea garden, The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space.

“Those living with a visual form of dementia’s eyes can be working perfectly, but the bit of the brain receiving signal from their eyes doesn’t function as it should. This means that vision can fragment and they can’t see properly; causing them to become confused and what they see to not necessarily represent what is in front of them.”

“Something that would be difficult for them, for example, would be walking into a bathroom with a white floor, white walls, and a white sink and toilet, plus the reflectivity of a mirror and glass – it’s a very low contrast environment, which might cause everything to amalgamate into one. And it’s hard to differentiate between it all, or to try and interact with it,” said Charlie.

The part of your brain that is responsible for image recognition analysis differs from the part that’s associated with motion detection. Colour differentiation can be a retained strength, but motion detection can be one too. Based on this, the design for The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space incorporated a water feature.

We decided to include a water feature, which had low reflectivity, in the garden. Reflectivity and light bouncing off things that can be disorientating to those living with a visual form of dementia

Charlie Hawkes, garden designer

Include plants that follow the concept of contrast and simplicity so that they are visible to people with visual forms of dementia.

“The Chelsea garden had a green base throughout to keep it quite calm with a pop of colour from blue benches and plants such as Tulipa sprengeri, the last flowering tulip, which is bright red. We added blocks of Rodgersia podophylla as visual anchors; it’s a big, bold plant with a chocolate tinge to its leaves, at that time of year, because they’re still developing. This helped it to stand out, in terms of colour and leaf form, from the rest of the planting,” said Charlie.

Bright blue benches in The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space

5) Keep your loved ones safe

Safety in the garden is hugely important; take precautions to ensure that someone living with dementia can’t wander off and get lost. Make sure that pathways are wide enough, use signs and clearly mark out areas of the garden as well. Ensure that poisonous plants are not easily reachable and, in a community garden, that volunteers have an awareness of dementia.

Dementia isn’t just about memory loss, it’s definitely an important component of the condition and how people experience it, but it’s also to do with perception and vision. Having clearly marked spaces is especially important for enabling people independence in the garden

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

People are so different in their range of experiences and stages of dementia so this is something that needs to be thought about on a case-by-case basis.

“You can’t plan for every eventuality, but you can speak to the person living with dementia and their carer and ask them what their needs are, rather than trying to plan everything,” said Liza.

6) Use all the senses

Smelling roses in the garden
“People living with advanced forms of dementia may not be able to physically get involved but being able to hear the wind in the trees, hear the birds, smell plants and flowers and herbs and be in a space that’s has a sort of sensory richness, is really important for people’s wellbeing,” said Liza.

With dementia, you never know which of your senses might be impacted in some way, so it’s important to consider a variety of ways to incorporate them into your garden.

Use all the senses to create a rich and stimulating environment

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

“It could be through the sound of running water, or by including scented plants such as Phlox divaricata subsp. laphamii ‘Chattahoochee’ or the shrub Azalea ‘Daviesii’ – this was a strong smell at the 2023 Chelsea Flower Show,” said Charlie.

7) Make it fun

Have fun by doing activities together in the garden
If you’ve adapted a garden to suit someone living with dementia, someone without dementia should be able to use it and enjoy it as well. Gardens and gardening offer such a range of activities and it might be fun to do it together.

If you’ve made a garden suitable for someone living with dementia, someone without dementia should be able to use it and enjoy it freely

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens
You don’t need to have any prior experience – there will be people that have been gardeners or love gardening, and there can be an embodied memory of that. But there are also people that live in flats and haven’t had much access to outdoor space, and they can still get involved.

Start with simple things such as planting seeds in pots. Choose something that grows quite quickly, which can give you a sense that you’re doing something.

It takes patience and it takes support, so it’s not an easy fix, but you can really improve the quality of someone’s life just by encouraging them to do a little something

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

8) Get involved with community gardening

Planting a little something in a community garden
Living with dementia can be lonely, so it’s important to be reminded that you are part of a community.

Community gardens are diverse spaces and bring a wide range of people from the neighbourhood and beyond together. They provide opportunities for getting involved in lots of activities from simply just meeting people, having a coffee, to taking part in the gardening itself.

It gives those living with dementia a sense that they are more than their condition. Dementia is experienced very individually, with people having differing needs and preferences

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

Community gardens are spaces for everyone, so ensuring that they are inclusive is imperative. Design activities and have specific times or places within a garden that are particularly helpful or attractive for people living with dementia.

“It’s not just the spatial design; it’s also about the environment, the feel, the friendliness. Are people aware of dementia? Have they been trained to treat people with respect and dignity and they’re not condescending? Is the place welcoming for a diverse range of people. For example, people from black and Afro-Caribbean communities have higher rates of dementia, so it’s essential to make these places diverse and inclusive for everybody,” said Liza.

Hospital gardens provide spaces to restore our stress levels and connect with the sounds, sights and smells of the outdoors. The relationship between nature and health is important.

Hospital spaces, even GP surgeries are using green social prescribing, and have special gardens for people with terminal illnesses or just for carers to get a bit of respite. These things are now being recognised as increasingly important

Liza Griffin, co-author of the University College London’s guide, Supporting people with dementia: A guide for community gardens

There are more resources on living with dementia available from the Alzheimer’s Society, Age UK, Dementia UK and Rare Dementia Support.

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