Smell the Roses.....Not the Manure
I am in the middle (maybe an optimistic measurement) of writing a new booklet about how to make gardening fun and easier to do for people who have dementia. I am slightly drowning in advice and trying to make it a little more entertaining – I am even considering using two characters with names rather than the terms ‘carer’ and ‘person/loved one with dementia’. If I get this right, prepare to see George and Violet Go Gardening – the TV series!
Dementia impacts not only the person with the diagnosis but everyone around them. It is frightening, confusing and overwhelming. However, once the initial shock of the diagnosis has sunk in and practical measures are in place, most people are determined to get on and live their best life. One simple but powerful way to do this is to gift flowers and food that you have grown to others, reminding them, and yourself, that you still have so much to offer. I am going to try the George and Violet experiment as we look at this idea of sharing the literal fruits of your labour (no gardeners were harmed in this experiment…).
George has dementia, but that is not the thing that defines him. He has always loved his garden. He learned from his Grandad about growing vegetables to help feed his family, flowers to keep in Violet’s good books, and the value of a quiet shed where everyone knows to leave him alone! That’s his den and nobody needs to know about the bottles of ale stored behind the bags of compost.
Violet is his wife, she knows all about the ale, just as George knows all about the ‘secret’ chocolates hidden behind the bags of flour in the kitchen. That’s just marriage. Violet also knows that George is struggling with his gardening now. Not just the physical challenges of not being able to bend down as nimbly as he used to or the ability to carry a full bag of compost slung over his shoulder, but remembering where things are or how to do simple tasks. This makes George frustrated, which then leads to agitation, snappy comments and even avoiding the garden altogether.
She knows that being in the garden is good for her husband, and while it has never been her favourite task, she knows that for both of their sakes she needs to support him. She may not love gardening, but she loves George, and that’s what this is all about now. Here is her advice.
“George is one of life’s good eggs, so much of his gardening led to gifts for the neighbourhood, flowers, fruit and vegetables, spare seedlings, he just got so much joy out of sharing. He always loved popping next door to take Old Mrs Parsons some of his rhubarb. I think that was mainly because she would return the next week with a jar or two of her famous rhubarb chutney. If I don’t step in soon, I will run out of that rhubarb chutney – can’t have that.
Now, my husband, he is a proud chap, a bit stubborn if you ask me, but that’s just how it is. I need to be sure I don’t try to take over, sound bossy or even worse seem like I am nagging! So I say things like, “I could do with your help with…..” rather than “Would you go and do……”. Sometimes I just sit with him outside and calmly start something, maybe sowing some sunflower seeds or potting up the tomato plants we bought. He will often join in. If he doesn’t, that’s OK, we are still just spending time together and chatting and laughing.
I like to encourage him to take a walk with me around the garden. I even hold his hand like we are courting. He seems to like that. I will have a pair of secateurs in my pocket and encourage him to pick a few flowers as we go round. It is nice, we take time to look at what is going on in the garden and smell the roses. I have to concentrate on smelling the fragrance of those old flowers and block out the slightly pungent manure that has been spread on the soil around them.
That is kind of our life now, concentrating on the good things and putting the smelly stuff in its place.
Anyyway, I digress. These sunflower seeds we sowed are now strong little plants. He has just popped down the street to give some to the little boys that live at number 32. He has told them how to look after them and they have challenged him to a competition – who can grow the tallest one, them or him. He has risen to the challenge.
I know that once those tomatoes are fruiting some will make their way to the children’s mum, along with a few potatoes and courgettes. “It is not easy to feed a young family these days,” says George who has never prepared a meal in his life!
When the grandchildren came round at the weekend, we had them painting jam jars with Grandad. These little vases were then filled with small flowers from the garden that they picked together and passed on to various teachers, their Mum and even their old grandma - not me, I am not old! Their other grandma. George sneeked a little jar for me, soppy old romantic. They are already planning to make birdfeeders together next visit.
And yes, Old Mrs Parsons has enough rhubarb for a few more jars of chutney.”
“Hello, George here. I just want to add my pennyworth here. I do love that my dear wife is helping me with the gardening. I don’t always say it, well probably never say it, but I do notice the little prompts, the small helping hand moments, and I am grateful. I don’t know how I would cope without her. She seems to get how this stupid disease makes me feel, and just takes care of business. However, she may know all about the ale behind the compost, but she hasn’t a clue about the shortbread in the tin marked ‘vegetable seeds!’”