According to the National Gardening Association, 78 million people garden in America. Many people feel they have to give it up as they become less physically able. However, gardening is really good for seniors, enriching their lives physically, mentally and spiritually.
As we age, we need to admit that we can’t do everything we used to. We need to forget about doing everything in one day. We need to relax more. Most accidents happen when we are tired and not paying close attention. let’s face it…..we are not 25 years old anymore!
I would like to address many issues confronting seniors and some general gardening guidelines that will assist everyone in their gardening practices. Obviously, they are not all going to affect everyone in the same manner.
Many changes occur as a person ages. They are not only physical but emotional, cognitive and social. Gardening can be used in a therapeutic way to address these issues and to help improve them. Many of the changes involved in aging must be addressed by modifications to gardening practices, situations, tools and equipment.
Vision – Some symptoms could include less clarity, harder to distinguish colors and reduced depth perception. The following items are recommended:
- Paint tools a bright color or wrap in brightly colored tape to make them easier to find and harder to lose.
- Used pelletized seed.
- Use vertical planting for less stooping and bending.
- Make sure paths are smooth and at least 4′ wide to allow walker and wheelchair access. Also a wider area to allow turning around.
Physical – As we age, many of us may experience some of the following situations: Reduced agility, less balance and strength, broken bones more likely, difficulty lifting and moving objects, falling is more likely, gardening as a whole is more difficult.
Chronic conditions such as arthritis, heart disease and kidney function can cause pain, tiring easily and increased urination. The following items are recommended:
- Get help for heavy lifting, grading and digging.
- Using raised beds, Earth Boxes or other containers for flowers and vegetables reduce the need to bend or kneel. Height is up to the individuals. Make the raised beds narrow so no reaching is necessary. Install a wide, flat board for sitting.
- Use a gardening bench for sitting or kneeling.
- Use tools with better leverage and improved grips and curved, rubber handles.
- Keep your tools sharp.
- Make sure soil is easily worked. Use lightweight, soil-less mixtures and add lots of perlite.
- More indoor gardening may be appropriate (houseplants, cuttings, herbs, etc.) There are container specialists who can assist you with heavy chores, large pots, etc.
- Create an easy container garden by getting an extra patio table so pots can sit on it.
- Avoid hanging baskets. They dry out too fast, need more fertilization and they are difficult to reach.
- Frequent resting periods in a shady or cool place are needed.
- A bathroom near the gardening area could be important.
- Avoid ladders and climbing on anything! If you can’t reach something, get someone to do it for you.
Temperature – As we age, it becomes harder to adjust to temperature extremes and changes. High and low temperatures are not tolerated as well. Hypothermia and heatstroke are more likely. Heat exhaustion caused by loss of body water and salt is more likely. Sunburn and other skin disorders can increase. Try some (if not all) of the following suggestions:
- Garden early in the morning or late in the day. Try to avoid the hours between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM.
- Drink water and juices. Keep a water bottle handy.
- Avoid alcoholic beverages.
- Shower more frequently.
- Wear lightweight, loose fitting clothes that cover exposed skin.
- Wear a hat.
- Apply sunscreen and insect repellant along with lip balm.
- Eat lighter meals.
- Wear gardening gloves.
- Wear sturdy shoes.
- Soak cuts and punctures in mild, salt water.
- Wear glasses.
Cognitive – With aging, there is a chance of a loss of short-term memory. It becomes more difficult to learn new skills. The learning pace slows. Accidents are more likely, especially with power tools.
- Keep the garden simple with less confusing plantings.
- Use plants that trigger memories.
- Create a distinctive and familiar focal point for easier orientation and way finding.
- Avoid the use of power tools. Use only manual shears, etc.
- Allow plenty of time for any gardening activity; keep the pace leisurely.
Societal Roles – Family roles can have the tendency to change. An elderly person can become more dependent economically. Family and friends could move or die, increasing a sense of isolation. Self esteem and self-confidence can become reduced with aggressive behavior and depression possibly resulting in some form. Here are some recommendations:
- Keep gardening activities at low cost.
- The gardener should have control over their own area.
- Social activities associated with the garden should be encouraged.
- Allow gardeners to teach others.
- Inter-generational activities are very effective.
Reduce Maintenance – It is best to do this with a friend or family member that may see things that you took for granted.
- Remove turf grass where possible and replace with a ground cover.
- Mulch beds.
- Check your yard for hazards-roots, uneven ground, loose steps, rocks, etc.
Further reading – Check out these great reads and learn more about gardening with seniors.
- The Able Gardener: Overcoming Barriers of Age & Physical Limitations. Kathleen Yeomans. 1993. Storey Communications, Inc. Pownal, VT
- Accent on Living. Accent Publications, PO Box 700, Bloomington, IL 61702.
- Adaptive Garden Equipment. Julia Beems. 1985 Craig Hospital, 3425 South Clarkson, Englewood, CO 80110.
- A Positive Approach. 1600 Malone Street, Municipal Airport, Millville, NJ 08332.
- Arthritis Today. Arthritis Foundation, 1314 Spring Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30309.
- Accessible Gardening for People with Disabilities: A Guide to Method, Tools & Plants. Adil, J., (1994). Woodbine House, Bethesda, MD.
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