Growing and Gardening Together

To grow a more meaningful and healthy connection with an elderly loved one, put on some rubber clogs and head out together to the garden!

At any age, gardening is one of the best activities we can do outdoors.  It stimulates all of the senses; awakens our connection with nature and with each other; and rewards us with fresh flowers and juicy tomatoes. "It's restorative, even if you have dementia," says Dee McGuire, a horticultural therapist at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore.

Gardening is also an excellent way for aging bodies to get a moderate-intensity aerobic workout, shed calories and stay flexible, according to a Kansas State University study. That's one reason why gardening remains popular with Americans well into their golden years. Indeed, about three-quarters of households age 55 or older participated in some form of lawn and garden activity in 2010, according to the National Gardening Association (NGA).

Still, there's no question that bending, lifting, kneeling, squatting, weeding and pruning—not to mention dealing with sun, heat and bugs—all become more challenging as we grow older.

Pace Yourself

If you’ve taken a winter break from yard chores, start slowly and work your way into shape. “For several days before digging in, do some gentle range-of-motion stretching of arms, back and torso,” says Paula Kramer, an occupational therapist at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Once you begin working in your yard, change your position and activity every 20 to 30 minutes, then rest for 10 minutes. “That way,” she says, “you won’t be too sore to go back to your garden the next day.” Kramer also recommends using ergonomic tools that are easier to grip. And if you have problems with arthritis in your hands, soak them in warm water before putting on gloves.

Raise the Ground

For people who prefer to sit while exercising their green thumbs, a rectangular raised planting bed with an adjacent chair or board for seating may be the best solution. The height can vary, but the width should be about an arm’s length “so you have easy access to the plants and won’t lose your balance while reaching across the bed,” says Cassidy. Raised beds can be built with a wide range of materials, from treated wood and secondhand lumber to concrete blocks and even piles of dirt. If you’re unable to do the construction yourself, there are several commercial outlets for raised beds, some of which can be used indoors or outdoors.

Get Vertical

If you cultivate vines on trellises, outside walls or along fences, you can work standing up, and that will reduce pressure on your lower back and knees. “Vertical gardens can be great space savers on decks and porches,” says Cassidy. And native vines such as trumpet creeper and fox grape also can attract wildlife. The height of such gardens should not extend beyond arm’s reach, especially if you are growing fruits or vegetables that require harvesting.

Go Native

Reassess the types of plants you’re cultivating. Reducing yard work, says Cassidy, “can be as simple as not growing high-maintenance plants such as roses and instead opting for native species.” Plants that are native to the region where a gardener lives require less upkeep and tend to be drought resistant, which can also mean less work. “Water and hoses are heavy,” says Cassidy, “so I recommend cultivating species that, once established, will take care of themselves.” Natives also entice birds, butterflies and other beneficial insects to a property by providing appropriate foods and places to raise young.

Think Small

You don’t need a large yard to gain the mental and physical satisfaction of cultivating plants and viewing nature—you just need to maintain a sense of proportion. If you live in an apartment, for example, you can use containers to grow herbs and native species that will attract hummingbirds, butterflies and other pollinators. With the right choices, you could even have fall color and berries growing on your balcony or deck. But, says Cassidy, “Stay away from plants that will grow too large or that won’t thrive in shady spaces if you have a covered porch.”

Gardening on any scale can provide a natural motivation to get up and go. “For one thing, you know there are plants you’ve got to go out and water and weed to keep [them] alive,” says Candice Shoemaker, head of Kansas State University’s Department of Horticulture, Forestry and Recreation Resources. In a recent study, she and her students found that gardening not only improves strength and mobility, it also provides seniors with self-esteem and helps reduce stress. “If we get the message out there that older adults can get health benefits from gardening, they’ll realize that they don’t have to walk around the mall to get exercise.” 

CareOne Senior Care Caregivers enjoy being active with our clients!

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