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Gardening and Horticultural Therapy for the Young and the Old
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Gardening and Horticultural Therapy for the Young and the Old

Written by Sherley Pothen, B.A. | Medically Reviewed by The Medindia Medical Review Team  on Oct 13, 2020
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From time immemorial gardening has had immense positive impact on an individual’s lifestyle. Many of us are passionate about gardening for the sheer joy of it, unaware of its healing aspects to the infirm.

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"A covering with sheets of lead, that the wet which drenched through the earth might not rot the foundation. Upon all these was laid earth of a convenient depth, sufficient for the growth of the greatest trees. When the soil was laid even and smooth, it was planted with all sorts of trees, which both for greatness and beauty might delight the spectators." - Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian said this about the “Hanging garden of Babylon”.

Gardening and Horticultural Therapy

Words are not enough to describe this impeccable beauty that has survived the ravages of time. The hobby of gardening has so much to offer in terms of therapy that its expansion in the form of Horticulture is being used as a therapeutic tool for both the young and the old.

That gardening can help improve cognitive skills, as well as physical and psychological behavior of a person is a relatively new revelation. The healing potential of horticulture therapy is gradually establishing the basis of knowledge for therapists, research scientists, gardeners and of course layman interested in this unique art and form of therapy. Father of American Psychiatry, Dr. Benjamin Rush, in the 19th century reported that ambience of the gardens had curative effect on people with mental illness. The gradual healing impact of gardening on war veterans in the 40’s and 50’s expanded the practice of horticulture therapy. Although slow, today a practical expansion of its wide-ranging benefits is being extended to people in vocational, therapeutic and wellness programs. Physically the bending and rising movements and the eye – hand coordination to sow the seeds provide not only adequate exercise but also improves the cognitive skills. For the elderly this form of exercise is very suitable and enjoyable. Even people on wheelchair can enjoy gardening and go for potted plants.

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Centers that concentrate on the institutionalized elders or assisted living facilities (facilities or centers for the physically challenged) operate with a primary task of boosting their self confidence and morales. Horticulture is a unique teaching method helping the challenged and elderly people to live life independently; of course their conditions are borne in mind and the gardening activities are assigned accordingly. Some centers like the American Horticultural Therapy Association follow the organizational theory of team work with their residents and applaud their yield when it blooms.

These centers bear in mind the physical conditions during old age that might hamper an elder from pursuing the task.

  • Importance is given to having raised beds and containers
  • Entrances are widely built to make it easily accessible making a gentle path for occupants on wheelchairs.
  • The green house concept is focused upon to pursue the horticulture tasks throughout the year.
  • Appropriate gardening tools are provided to enable the elderly and the physically weak patients to regain physical strength to a certain extent.

The aesthetics such as the agreeable odor of soil, dew drops on the grass, and the serenity of the landscape help the elderly and patients to fight their disabilities. Horticulture has helped them connect with the natural world and gain spiritual stimulation, thereby helping them fight their inadequacy and depression.

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The sedentary lifestyle is taking a huge toll on children and grownups. Horticulture has proven successful in bringing children close to nature. Children involved in gardening even on a smaller area seemed mentally active. With children undergoing a lot of stress due to peer pressure or academic liabilities, there are reports of children isolating themselves from groups. They may have low personality and confidence levels and even may remain irritated or disconnected most of the time. In a survey conducted by Finnish researchers, children involved in outdoor gardening activities have shown improved physical endurance, team spirit and active socializing. The researchers however recommend that these activities should be conducted outdoors to ensure children connect with nature and feel the environment around them. The sheer joy of seeing a seed germinate and flowery bulbs poking through the soil can be the best mood elevator for children and adults. When elderly people in a hospice care get involved in gardening and grow some of the food for their kitchen it provides them that extra pleasure of cooking and tasting it is most gratifying. To improve sensory perception one can grow fragrant plants such as lavender and lemon thyme.

Joseph Breck, horticulturist wrote, “Man was not meant to rust out in idleness. A degree of exercise is necessary for the preservation of health, both of body and mind, as his daily food. And what exercise is more fitting, or more appropriate of one who is in the decline of life, than that of superintending a well-ordered garden?”

Horticulture as a therapy has proven to be beneficial for all ages groups. Unfortunately, its therapeutic benefits are not well known to the general public. Horticulture therapy is so much in demand that some well known colleges and universities have added it as a degree and certificate program in their institutes.

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The thought of hospitalization sickens most people but with horticulture, patients are given their space to design their gardens and imply their thought process, a method that “Healing Gardens” – a children’s hospital in Alberta – follows.

A beautifully kept garden can be a form of legacy too that one can leave behind. It’s not just a distraction from the normal hospitalization but is a journey to self actualization that brings the young and the old together and takes the institutionalized and the challenged through a journey of spiritual healing. It sure is a worthwhile activity that even a healthy person should indulge in.

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