Creating a beautiful garden has excellent positive effects on a senior’s physical and mental health. It keeps them connected to nature, stimulates their senses, and gives them satisfaction and enjoyment through watching the plants grow. In addition, there are health benefits from the sun’s Vitamin D3, plus the pleasure of healthy, eating delicious vegetables.
Despite the world begging to reopen in stages now, the coronavirus pandemic is still keeping many seniors at home where they can limit their exposure to COVID-19.
But, after you’ve watched a billion reruns on television and baked all the bread and other goodies you can think of, what’s next? Well, if you’ve got a green thumb (or even if you don’t), try gardening!
Is Gardening Good Exercise For Seniors?
Gardening can be classified into three categories: aerobic activities like digging or walking; muscle-strengthening exercises while using hand tools such as shovels and rakes, and balance training through walking on uneven ground, such as stepping stones in walkways.
All these elements are encouraged by the Centers of Disease Control (CDC).
Not only do they bring improvements to one’s health, but they also provide opportunities for exposure to sunlight that boosts vitamin D levels which improves mood.
In addition, gardening helps senior citizens stay flexible (it’s all that bending, stretching, and stepping around plants).
Another benefit to gardening is endurance and strengthening. This comes from moving heavy loads, such as bags of dirt, or pushing wheelbarrows. Carrying watering cans and dragging hoses around the garden also contribute.
In turn, that activity burns calories and promotes good eye-hand coordination, which helps to stimulate nerve connections in the brain that relate to many everyday activities.
Mentally, gardening reduces stress and anxiety by lowering cortisol levels and raising serotonin levels (the feel-good chemical) in your brain. It also provides a purpose, which goes a long way toward improving an older adult’s level of happiness and life satisfaction.
Working in a community garden can also be a means of social activity for elderly gardeners who may not see a lot of people otherwise. They’re not only getting some physical activity, they can stay engaged socially without much effort.
Lastly, gardening is a good idea for seniors who are worried about brain health.
Studies have shown that gardening can aid cognitive function and hold off cognitive declines, like dementia and Alzheimer’s (learn more in our article about therapeutic gardening for dementia, Does Gardening Help With Memory Loss?).
In fact, in one study, researchers found that “the most physically active women halved their risk of developing dementia from vascular disease, compared to women who were physically completely inactive, says Nancy Biazulchuk” in her article on ScienceNordic.com.
Making Gardening Easy For Seniors
Gardening is a hobby that can be practiced all through a senior’s golden years. Garden activities can be carried out by older people, no matter what their level of expertise or how much time they have available to devote to it.
It’s inexpensive, therapeutic, and adaptable to physical limitations. For example, a senior gardener with limited mobility can grow plants in raised garden beds with little effort. A snap-together raised bed kit is a good option if family members aren’t close by to help build a raised garden.
If your elderly parent (or a senior you know) has had to reduce how much they work in their garden or they’ve stopped it all together simply because it isn’t safe for them any longer, here are some tips to make it easier and less risky for them:
- Be sure the garden spaces provide easy access if the senior is in a wheelchair or using a walker or cane. A solid cement walkway would be the best option, but if that isn’t possible, put down large, square pavers, then cement them together to create a walkway that’s as smooth as possible.
- Raise the garden through either a raised garden bed, large pots or container gardening, or vertical gardening via window boxes on a patio wall or deck railings. An accessible garden layout can also be made from vertical plant “pockets” that you can buy and hang on a fence or a patio wall (see the image to the right).
- Another way to make a vertical garden is by using a stackable planter like this one. You can make the garden several layers (stacks) high), then simply water the top two levels. The water will run down to the lower plants. A basin at the bottom catches and stores any remaining water, so you don’t have to go outside and water every day.
- Look for ergonomic tools if you or your senior loved one have arthritic hands, lack hand strength, or have other dexterity concerns. You should look for tools with an ergonomic design, such as larger than normal handles that have non-slip grips. You’ll also want to consider the weight of the tool (lighter is better).
- Use a garden kneeler bench, garden seat, or something like a gardening trolley to sit on while working in your outdoor area (Stable chairs could also work). Look for a garden scooter or a garden cart with a storage box so you can carry all your tools and other paraphernalia out all at once.
- Weeding tools can help a lot. I use a garden “claw” (like a Garden Weasel) that you twist to loosen weeds and it has saved me from having back problems. Consider not weeding if you have poor balance or your upper body strength isn’t good, though. It’s not worth the risk of falling.
- Use a gardening apron to keep small tools within reach and out from under your feet.
- If you live alone, I strongly recommend wearing a medical alert device and TAKING IT INTO THE GARDEN WITH YOU! My 94-year-old aunt often tells me how she gets out into the yard and up on her steep hill to garden while my cousin (who lives with her) is at work. “Do you take your Life Alert out there with you? Or your cell phone, at least?” I ask. Invariably she responds that she knows she should, but forgets to take it out. What if she falls, though? How long will she lay there before he comes home and finds her? I shudder to think of the risk she is taking!
Gardening Tips For Seniors
One very important thing to watch for when gardening is the summer heat. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are very dangerous medical conditions!
- On hot days, try to tend the garden earlier in the morning or towards the end of the day when it is cooler.
- Bring a water bottle into the garden (a jug of water is the best option) and be very sure to drink it often to stay hydrated.
- Limit the time in direct sunlight to about 10 minutes at a time and only garden two to three times per week.
- Make sure to wear the proper clothing. Put on stable shoes (no sandals or anything that can slip off easily) and wear a large brimmed sun hat to keep the sun off of you. Also wear gardening gloves and use bug spray.
- Keep a first aid kit handy for the inevitable splinters or cuts that can happen while gardening.
- Organize tools like rakes, trowels, and spades by hanging them up on hooks in the garage or carport. Also, keep them organized while using them in the garden to avoid tripping over them. Be especially careful when using power tools!
It’s important for seniors to be able to do the things they enjoy for as long as they are physically able. With the right tools, older gardeners can enjoy “horticultural therapy” well into their later years.
Whether you’re the senior or you have an elderly parent moving in with you or aging in place in their own home, be sure to take the time to assess needs, wants, and functional ability so you (or they) can enjoy gardening safely.
You can read more about the gardening products we recommend in this article.