Going down the garden path for dementia care

Marlene strolls around the new garden at her home at Calvary Cessnock Retirement Community.

Her younger sister Margaret is visiting and arm in arm they meander along the paths, around the recently planted lemon and lime trees, under an arbor, past raised garden beds ready for planting and succulents already growing in their vertical planter boxes.

As they round a bend they brush past lavender and scented pelargoniums, rosemary and thyme, the aromas wafting up and around. They pass a vine-covered wall and walk between water walls trickling raindrops that glisten as they catch the winter sun. 

Friends for life, the sisters stop at the memory box wall to see the items on display. They chat and laugh at memories of this and that. They cross a lawn to rest on a bench in the dappled light of a shady tree before taking a path back to the start, a large covered patio where morning tea is being served.

The new sensory garden has been designed with people living with dementia in mind.

It is part of a recent $2.4 million refurbishment of Hebburn Lodge, one of 10 households at Calvary Cessnock. The lodge is one of two on the site that are participating in a pilot of a new approach to delivering care and services for Calvary’s residential aged care homes which is based around small households and driven by resident’s needs.

That pilot is one of several initiatives being undertaken by Calvary as part of its commitment to improving the outcomes, physical environment and quality of life for people in Calvary’s care who are living with dementia. Among the initiatives are a new model of dementia care across Calvary’s hospitals, residential care and community care; and special training for all residential care staff to improve their knowledge and skills in supporting people with dementia.

Research is also an important focus and Calvary is supporting the collaborative Step Up for Dementia Research that aims to link people with lived experience of dementia, including carers and others, with relevant research projects.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Dementia in Australia 2021 report, released this week as part of Dementia Action Week, estimates that between 386,200 and 472,000 Australians are living with dementia. That number is predicted to reach over 849,300 by 2058.

Back in the garden, research has also shown that physical and visual access to nature can have positive impacts for everyone, and particular benefits for people living with dementia.

It can help people recover from illness quicker, helps reduce stress and lower blood pressure, and is a natural way to absorb vitamin D, an important ingredient for maintaining strong bones. Then there is the simple beauty of a garden or outdoor space and its capacity to help us relax and support our mental and emotional wellbeing.

For people living with dementia, it can increase levels of activity, maintain mobility and flexibility, encourages use of motor skills, provides stimulation and interest as well as and opportunities for increased social interaction.

Dementia describes a collection of symptoms that are caused by disorders affecting the brain. It is not one specific disease. Dementia affects thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday tasks.

Calvary’s National Executive Advisor for Aged Care, Luke Sams, says outdoor spaces and gardens like the one at Hebburn Lodge can play a big role in supporting and improving quality of life for people living with dementia.

“We needed to work with the space that was already there but have extended the pathways and added plantings and fixtures that will stimulate residents’ senses of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste,” Mr Sams said.

“For people with dementia, those increased opportunities for casual socialising with other residents or staff or spending time with family and visitors are really important as is increasing meaningful activity in their lives.

“Having this sort of garden space also creates ready-made opportunities for our staff or families and visitors to tap into when providing support or care. It might be inviting a resident to take a stroll, or look at a flowering shrub, or changing colours, or to see what’s in the memory boxes. Or the person might want to help with everyday chores like racking leaves or planting. All of these can prompt conversation, movement, engagement and, very importantly, memory and reminiscence.”

Creating purposeful therapeutic spaces and gardens is likely to become even more important.

You can find out more about dementia at www.dementia.org.au.