Gardening Said to Improve Quality of Life for Alzheimer’s Patients

This is certainly an interesting article following on the heels of our weekend shopping spree for trees, flowers and plants. We ended up buying 9 trees, a golden raspberry bush, a blueberry bush, herb seeds, hostas, and tons of other flower and wildflower seeds. We plan to start working outside tomorrow. I find playing around with veggies, plants and flowers to be quite invigorating. I can fully appreciate this article. Ah, yes. We’re still not done… soon as the weather breaks, then we get quite a few day lilies to plant as well.

Gardening Said to Improve Quality of Life for Alzheimer’s Patients
Mar 06, 2009
Kenny Goldberg

There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia that affect the elderly. Mental health professionals believe there are activities that can enhance quality of life. One therapy uses gardening as a way to improve patient’s moods and decrease problem behaviors. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.


(Photo: Horticulture therapist Kathleen Brand helps patients shape up the planters. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

It’s late morning on the senior behavioral health unit at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest. Horticulture therapist Kathleen Brand tries to gather her charges.

“Would you like to come with us to the garden?, ” Brand says to a patient. “Outside, we’re going to go for a walk. Uh huh, a walk. Would you like to come? I can help you? Go for a walk?”

Twice a week, patients on this unit are invited to go outside and do some gardening.  Occupational therapist Elizabeth Refn says there are always some patients who don’t really want to go.

“So sometimes we need to make a deal with people about going outside, says Refn.

“Sometimes juice or ice cream works quite well. Is that right? What would make you want to come with us today?”

Finally, Brand and Refn manage to convince patients to come along. The group shuffles to the elevator, goes down to the ground floor, and walks out into the sunshine. This outdoor patio has a number of small planters and raised flower beds. Brand lays out the agenda.


(Photo: The patients’ work is on display in the senior behavioral health unit. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

“All right,” says Brand. “We have a couple of different projects we’re gonna work on today, we have some planting, we have this empty planter here. Then we’re gonna do some deadheading of any of our dead flowers, and then I also would like to make some plant markers.”

Some patients just sit around blinking in the bright sun. One man takes a pen and starts to make some labels. Two patients eagerly grab some trowels and plants, and start to dig.

“Oh, this kills my wrist,” says Alice.

Alice is small and frail. Doctors say she has dementia and short term memory loss. But when she touches the soil, old memories come flooding back.

“I had a huge yard,” says Alice. “33 trees, 24 rose bushes, we had a big, big, big yard. Apricot, and a fig, and a lemon and a lime. And we were on a steep hill. I kept falling, but luckily it was dirt.”

Horticulture therapy is not a new invention. It’s been around for centuries. In fact, it’s long been thought gardens have beneficial effects on people with mental illness.

Only recently has horticulture therapy been subject to the rigors of modern behavioral science.

Dr. Christina Gigliotti was one of the first to publish research on the effects of horticulture therapy on patients who have dementia.

“What we have found in our research,” says Gigliotti, “is that people in horticulture activities compared to other types of activities that are traditionally offered, were more productively engaged, that is they engaged in the activity that was presented to them, rather than staring off into space, rather than wandering around the room, rather than doing some behaviors we would call self-stimulating behaviors.”


(Photo: Kathleen Brand clears out some excess flowers. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)

Gigliotti says she found dementia patients reacted more positively to horticulture therapy than to other activities like coloring. She believes it’s because gardening is inherently stimulating.

Plants are able to stimulate the sense of smell, the tactile experience as well as the visual interest,” Gigliotti says. “So if somebody has deficits, there’s still something for them in terms of the sensory experience. In addition, it’s something that is able to capitalize on people’s social histories.”

UCSD staff say patients seem to sleep better and are less agitated after a session in the garden.

Gigliotti says her research has found some short term effects from horticulture therapy. The long term benefits, if any, have not been measured.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.

“This is lantana, that’s what this is called,” Brand says. “It has these gorgeous little flower clusters. Butterflies like this plant. See how little it is? And now feel this leaf.”


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6 Responses

  1. Interesting article! I love gardening, and for many years I canned tomatoes and tomato sauce from my own yard, as well as made grape juice from the grapevines Sherman lovingly took care of. We sold the house in 2006 and I still have some bottles of both.
    When we moved to the condo, I was disappointed for not having a garden, but in the spring the board announced that a lot had been designed for a community garden, so I took 2 small lots. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck with my tomatoes last year but I’ll try again! I think is a wonderful, creative and productive therapy -and it makes you so tired that you sleep like an angel at night.
    I hope you and Pam are enjoying a sunny day in the garden!

  2. Happy St Pat’s Day!! grow shamrocks!!!

  3. Hello David,

    Wow, the plants and trees sound all so wonderful. What a beautiful display they will be. Enjoy.

    Even though we have mentioned them before I thought you might be interested to know that on our news broadcast last evening they had a segment on how rehabs are using the Wii games for stroke victims, MS sufferers etc and the benefits they’re finding from it. Balance, coordination, fitness and enjoyment. I wish they weren’t so expensive.

    But spring and planting your beautiful plants sure beats the hell out of an indoors computer generated game.

    And yummo, blueberries and raspberries.


  4. David,

    I keep advocating that gardening plots be included any place we set up as traditional housing for the homeless or the mentally ill. Gardening heals the soul in many ways. It allows for marginalized people to reconnect and be less difficult to deal with. In community gardening it builds community and allows for human interaction which is so lacking in our society now. We set up a community garden in Benicia and paired seniors with school kids for the first couple of years. Now there is a waiting list to participate in the garden.

    Enjoy your blue berries. Make sure you have a variety that doesn’t need a partner for polination.

  5. Interesting article. You mentioned that one of the patients was very frail and that gardening was physically challenging for her. I would like to suggest a blog entry that looks at ways to make gardening easier for the elderly. Perhaps this would be useful.

    • Thanks Roxanne for the link!

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