I have just come back from a two-week break, which can be a dangerous thing. Taking a rest from your daily routine can have, in my experience, one of two effects. You either get to the last day with moans of ‘I don’t want to go back’, or you return feeling refreshed and raring to go.
Thankfully, I am experiencing the latter (mostly – I am only human!). This is probably because my idea of a break over the last two weeks was to spend the whole time in my own garden and reclaim it as ‘my space’ rather than a working space. Well, that and eating an ice cream each day and submitting to my love of pick and mix. While I was doing this (the gardening, not the ice cream), it made me think of how once a loved one is feeling the impact of dementia on their daily life, we need to make adjustments to our routine and how we view the tasks that we do each day. This is definitely the case when it comes to our gardens.
When you live with someone with dementia it can be hard to adapt to what has become their new reality. We try so hard to hold on to how things have always been, the things we enjoyed doing together. We try to encourage our loved ones to continue to do what they have always done, which does have real value up until a point. But there comes a time when we have to acknowledge that things are changing, and we must adapt our approach for their sake and ours.
When it comes to gardening, we need to change our focus. Results are no longer measured in the length of the lawn or how many beans have been harvested. They are measured in how many minutes you have enjoyed some time together in the garden, how independently your loved one has manged to plant up one hanging basket. This takes time, and we need to go easy on ourselves as we become accustomed to this new approach. Accepting help to keep on top of the main tasks is not admitting defeat, it is clearing time to spend on more important moments.
Here are a few tips on making the most of those moments.
· Reduce the amount of work involved in maintaining the garden. This may be by replacing annual bedding schemes with perennials; reducing the number of pots that you have that need watering in hot weather – or at least replace a large collection of small pots with a smaller number of bigger pots; adding a layer of mulch to your beds to reduce the need for weeding; planting plenty of ground cover plants for the same reason.
· What ever you are doing together in the garden, take some time to engage as many senses as possible, not just smelling the roses. Walk bare foot on the grass, listen to the birds, bees and the leaves that rustle in the breeze, look at the sky and the tiny bugs. This all may sound a bit hippy dippy to you, but I promise, just focusing on your surroundings can have a lovely calming effect on anyone.
· Focus on what your family member can still do, not on what they find difficult now. I know a lovely couple where the gentleman has dementia and loves to use his secateurs. He has a great eye for neatness, so spent many days cutting their long hedge using his secateurs. The gardener in you might think it is more efficient to use hedge trimmers, or at least shears, but his wife (who is incredibly wise) knew that he would enjoy it and that was what was important.
· Take time to chat – some elements of your garden may have a reminiscence element to them. Take care here not to start a conversation with ‘do you remember….?’ No conversation should feel like a test. In my garden I might brush the lavender and smell it, commenting on how my Nannie and Grandad used to have lots of this in their garden, or pick a few (very small!) grapes from the vine and mention that this actual plant used to belong to my Dad. This invites a response but does not request one.
Over the next few weeks I will share some tips on how to do some common jobs in the garden while embracing the impact of dementia in your home rather than battling it.
Adapting our approach is key. My garden over the last few years has been more like a nursery, and not a tidy, ordered one at that. I love to grow plants. I also love to go to the local markets and fairs to sell the plants I have grown, promoting the work we do and enjoying banter with the customers, many of whom have become regulars. When you find yourself singing Lily of Laguna with a couple in the middle of Grimsargh Farmer’s Market, you know you are part of something special.
However, with my grown-up head on I took a look at how I was spending my time and our financial resources and realised, with some sadness, that selling plants in the volume that I can grow them in my little garden was just not profitable. I tried to justify it with looking at how the community interaction maybe increased the number of people engaging with our services, but sadly, no, this was pretty minimal too.
So, I have spent the last couple of weeks sorting pots, plants and more shelving than I realised I had. Contacting local community gardens to offer my spare resources and reclaiming the space as an area of relaxation, a whole new concept for me and my garden.
So – big girl pants firmly pulled up, no more plant growing….well, maybe just a few.