Mental · Nature

Gardens soothe a failing brain

medicinal gardens
credit: Angelface Botanicals

Just viewing nature can make us feel better. This has been found in several different situations, but perhaps none so profound as with Alzheimer patients. As reported by Claire Moore, ABC News:

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of senile dementia and is characterized by a buildup of plaques deposited in the brain. It affects up to 10 percent of adults over the age of 65 and 50 percent of those over 80.

Nationwide more than 4 million people have the disease. The Chicago-based Alzheimer’s Association that is sponsoring the congress estimates more than 12 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s by 2025 as baby boomers move onto their 70s and 80s.

Elizabeth Brawley has devoted her professional life to “designing for Alzheimer’s” — everything from handrails and chairs to lights and entire rooms that fit the needs of adults with dementia, a fatal condition most commonly caused by Alzheimer’s.

Her most recent project is the American Landscape Society of America Alzheimer’s Garden Project — a series of nine gardens designed to accommodate those with Alzheimer’s. “We know that just getting outside is good for you. For Alzheimer’s patients it can help reduce anxiety, improve sleep patterns and give the caregiver a break,” says Jack Carman, a landscape architect who is Brawley’s partner in the garden project.

Research has shown that sick and elderly people who were able to view trees and sky recovered faster — with fewer painkillers and complaints — than those left staring at brick walls. Numerous studies have also shown reductions in blood pressure, anxiety, pain and other symptoms of stress when patients were offered just a videotape or a photograph of a natural scene.

But so far there is very little research on how sunlight and being in a natural environment affect people with Alzheimer’s in particular. So Brawley, Carman and the Alzheimer’s Association are currently applying for government and private funding to study the five memory gardens they have completed in Oklahoma City, Muskegon, Mich., Hastings, Minn., New York City and Macon, Ga.

The first memory garden opened in July 1999 on a half acre park in Macon, Ga.

“So far, it’s been hugely successful because everyone from the community uses it. It’s not just for people with Alzheimer’s but it does provide them with a sanctuary,” said Mary Gatti, executive director of the Central Georgia chapter.

Although healing gardens are hardly a new idea, said Chapman — they’ve been discussed for the past 40 years by some researchers — the importance of an outdoor environment has been ignored to practitioners and nursing homes for too long.

The National Post also carried a story about the healing of gardening. There has also been research on ADHD kids and nature, as well as general mental wellness. More on this later, but the article also mentioned studies about how just viewing flowers makes us happier:

A behavioural research study conducted a few years ago at Rutgers University found the presence of flowers — at the bedside or outside a window — triggers happy emotions, heightens feelings of life satisfaction and affects social behaviour in positive ways that exceed what was previously believed.

An earlier study, conducted by health care design expert Roger Ulrich, compared the hospital records of patients recovering from gall bladder surgery and found those with a view of trees— rather than a view of a brick wall — spent less time in the hospital and required fewer and less-potent drugs to remain comfortable.

I think it’s wonderful how this is becoming more widespread and more accepted. The University of Washington, Seattle, offers a certificate degree in designing healing gardens.