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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Zambakari

Embracing Nature:

The Therapeutic Benefits of Gardening and Outdoors Respite for Residents with Dementia


Dr. Christopher Zambakari, B.S., MBA, M.I.S., LP.D.

Owner/Operator; Desert Haven Home Care, Apollo Residential Assisted Living, Villa Fiore Assisted Living-Prescott Valley


 

Under a single home care umbrella, Desert Haven Home Care, Apollo Residential Assisted Living, and Villa Fiore Assisted Living-Prescott feature unparalleled care, feature unparalleled care, service and advocacy in the compassionate treatment of senior citizens in need of medical attention. Offered in a familial setting, the facilities are teamed by professionals passionate about their work and fully engaged in the welfare of residents. Each facility proudly provides patient-centric supervisory, assisted and directed care, short-term respite stays and memory care support for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.


The following exploration of the therapeutic benefits of gardening and outdoors respite for dementia patients is one in a series of regular informational blogs relative to the field of service, care and the treatment of our elderly.


Editor’s note: It is important to clarify that dementia is not a specific disease but rather a general term referencing loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities. Notes Ability Central, a California-based nonprofit assisting families and caregivers, dementia is a group of symptoms caused by other conditions, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, contributing to 60-70 percent of all dementia cases. Other forms of dementia include Lewy body, frontotemporal, Huntington’s, mixed dementia and vascular. As a leader in home care innovation, our three residential facilities will be among those on the receiving end of a unique grant to explore the intersection between permaculture and care theory. To learn more, click here.

 

In any residential care setting for seniors with dementia, the importance of providing a stimulating and nurturing environment cannot be overstated. In fact, as an introduction to this article, I quote from the UK-based Social Care Institute for Excellence: “A garden offers fresh air, exercise and exposure to sunlight which is vital for wellbeing.” It continues: “People with dementia generally will be less likely to become agitated and distressed if they can have regular access to fresh air and exercise and a quiet space away from others as needed. The garden can be a safe and secure environment if designed properly.”


Credit: Binyamin Mellish / Pexels

This much is known: Environment plays an important role in the care and treatment of seniors suffering from dementia, of which Alzheimer’s is one form. As the owner and operator of three assisted living care facilities in Arizona – Desert Haven Home Care in Phoenix, Apollo Residential Assisted Living in Glendale, and Villa Fiore Assisted Living-Prescott Valley – I am familiar with the many ways a senior care environment can be enhanced – lighting, noise levels, assisted technology, kitchen and dining areas, gathering places and more – for the comfort of its patients, including the institution of on-site gardening and outdoors respite opportunities which, unfortunately, are all too often overlooked.


Even away from a senior care application, gardening works wonders for the mind. Writes Sue Stuart-Smith, a British psychiatrist and psychotherapist, in her UK best-selling The Well-Gardened Mind, “When we sow a seed, we plant a narrative of future possibility.” It is no coincidence the benefits of gardening to mental health are widely acknowledge on the “sceptr’d isle.” According to a 2020 article by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker, “[UK] Primary-care doctors increasingly give patients a ‘social prescription’ to do something like volunteer at a local community garden, believing that such work can sometimes be as beneficial as talk therapy or antidepressants.”


Sensory stimulation can have a calming effect, reduce anxiety and agitation, and enhance overall mood.

Here, it is my pleasure to share with you a sampling of the benefits of gardening programs and outdoor exposure in the enhancement of a dementia care resident’s overall experience and subsequent quality of life.



Therapeutic effects of gardening: Gardening offers numerous benefits for individuals with dementia. Engaging in gardening activities stimulates the senses, enhances motor skills and provides a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Tending to plants, feeling the soil and observing the growth process – in some cases, tasting the end product – can evoke positive emotions and trigger memories, fostering a sense of well-being and connectedness.


Neuroplasticity and cognitive stimulation: Neuroplasticity is the ’brain’s ability to adapt and form new connections throughout life. Gardening promotes neuroplasticity by engaging multiple cognitive functions such as memory, problem-solving and sensory perception. The constant learning and stimulation involved in gardening can help slow cognitive decline and improve overall brain health in individuals with dementia.


Sensory stimulation in nature: Being outdoors exposes residents to natural light, fresh air and the sounds and scents of nature. This sensory stimulation can have a calming effect, reduce anxiety and agitation, and enhance overall mood. The sights, sounds and smells of a garden can evoke pleasant memories, providing a sense of comfort and familiarity.


Physical activity and mobility: Gardening requires physical activity, such as bending, reaching and walking, which can help maintain or improve mobility and muscle strength. Encouraging residents to participate in gardening activities promotes physical fitness and can contribute to better overall health and well-being.


Social interaction and engagement: Gardening activities can be enjoyed individually or in groups, fostering social interaction and a sense of community among residents. Collaborative gardening projects encourage teamwork, communication and shared experiences, enhancing social connections and combating feelings of isolation.


Creating a therapeutic environment: Therapeutic garden spaces can be designed specifically to meet the needs of residents. These spaces may include sensory gardens, raised beds for easy access and designated areas for relaxation and reflection. Such environments provide a peaceful retreat that promotes a sense of tranquility and emotional well-being.


These are just a handful of opportunities surrounding the therapeutic value of gardens and gardening and outdoors exposure as effective tools in the care and treatment of dementia patients. The engaging nature of gardening stimulates the senses, promotes neuroplasticity, provides sensory stimulation, encourages physical activity and mobility, fosters social interaction, and creates a therapeutic environment. By incorporating gardening and outdoor activities into the care plans of residents with dementia, elderly care services enhance their residents’ overall well-being and quality of life. The power of nature and the joy of gardening can make a significant difference, allowing individuals with dementia to connect with their surroundings, evoke positive emotions, and experience a renewed sense of purpose and fulfillment.


 

About the Author

Dr. Christopher Zambakari is the owner and operator of three Arizona-based assisted living care homes – Desert Haven Home Care in Phoenix, Apollo Residential Assisted Living in Glendale, and Villa Fiore Assisted Living in Prescott Valley, Arizona. He provides direction and oversight to a team of licensed medical and caregiving professionals to ensure the highest levels of customized care, service and advocacy at each of his facilities. Zambakari is founder and CEO of The Zambakari Advisory, an international consultancy in the areas of strategic intelligence, program design and transitional processes. He is a Hartley B. and Ruth B. Barker Endowed Rotary Peace Fellow, and the assistant editor of the Bulletin of The Sudans Studies Association.


 

Permaculture, care theory to mix in proposed study at Desert Haven Home Care, Apollo Residential Assisted Living

A grant to develop a program mixing permaculture and the ethics of care could inspire new, more meaningful and more interactive activities at Desert Haven Home Care in Phoenix and Apollo Residential Assisted Living in Glendale.


One of the hypotheses of the grant, says investigator Estève Giraud, a Ph.D. student in Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability, is that the combination of permaculture projects with thoughtful design has a positive effect on the development of a culture of care. Permaculture is an eco-cognizant practice that combines land, resources, people and the environment to form maximum positive environmental results.


“We also hope to demonstrate that the designs and practices we create will be greatly beneficial in a number of senior-living areas,” says Giraud. “In addition to increasing fresh food access, the grant offers the chance to learn more about agricultural, culinary and food preparation processes. Enhancing assisted living residents’ well-being is certainly likely to be a welcome product of the study, as can providing additional support for care workers, and strengthening the collective memory of how to grow food.”

Researchers will meet with Desert Haven and Apollo professional and care staff by the end of the calendar year, and a full report of the findings is expected to be submitted in early 2022, Christopher Zambakari, owner and operator of the two Valley-based residences, is excited about the promise of the study and how it might benefit his residents.


"The grant has been part of a long plan to purposely design an environment that promotes and has the best chance to maximize wellness and well-being,” says Zambakari, who earned bachelor’s degree at ASU before earning his doctorate in law and policy from Northeastern University and his master’s in international studies (peace and conflict resolution). “I learned from my early experience in hospice years ago that by simply allowing residents with dementia to participate in hands-on activities in the garden you can improve their wellness; you’re able to engage them in new and meaningful ways. As an undergrad at ASU, I learned about the positive impacts of giving assisted living seniors a plant and having them take care of it. That, the simple care of a plant, was enough to give some meaning, reasons for hope and improved well-being.


“We’re looking forward to our participation, and we’re excited to do something like this with our valued residents in mind.”


For more about Desert Haven Home Care and Apollo Residential Assisted Living, visit https://www.deserthavenaz.com/. For more information, you can reach me or one of my team at info@deserthavenaz.com


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