Universal Gardens: Able to Garden While Aging in Place

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Formerly a registered nurse, Donna Rodman has written and presented on the benefits of gardening locally and internationally.  Donna has been a proponent of universal design and accessibility in outdoor spaces for over 20 years.


The Homeward Directive:  keeping mom and dad home with their grandchildren:  Intergenerational Living is not new, it's as OLD as the hills  and used to be called the 'extended' family!  We are simplying giving it a universal design paradigm which makes intergenerational living appealing.  However there is truth to the saying - there is no place like home.


Our interaction with nature does not end just because we age.  People have a lifelong connection with the outdoor environment in varying degrees.  For some, this participation may be subtle in simply people watching as others interact with the outdoor environment.  For others, there is a deeper connection with nature through gardening, birding and feeding the birds, physical exercise, landscape painting and other nature pursuits.   For the Canadian Senior who has been actively and deeply connected to social activities, nature or a garden, aging can be understood in two ways:  the progressive inability to cope with day-to-day events causing emotional upset, anguish, and demoralization or continuing or modifying their pursuits, hobbies and golden age interests.  One attitude leads to a lack of interest to continue living, the other seeks a deeper purpose, perhaps to make the environment a better place for this and future generations.


Changes in the mental health of seniors can be subtle or they can be dramatic however, more than likely the changes will occur quietly and unobserved and are known today as ‘benign neglect’.   Dr. Joe Sadavoy, past-president of the International Psychogeriatric Association, says benign neglect occurs right under the noses of families, who erroneously believe that parents naturally become more confused, slower and neglect personal hygiene as they age.   Certainly, there can be a diagnosis of clinical depression, but more often, toward the end of life, the cause of mental and physical decline is an overwhelming sadness which is hard to measure, express, and properly assess.  Our Canadian healthcare system is not prepared to deal with a rise in cases of severe unhappiness, feelings of abandonment, or loneliness in the elderly as they lose their health, spouses and friends.  Already we are seeing signs from the Federal Government, that ways are being sought to mitigate the impact of the Canadian senior advancing in age, much healthier, longer.  


Seniors living today are increasingly attaching importance to community based, integrated, housing and activity centers.  Such neighbourhood amenities are the healthier socialization solutions for our Seniors.  It is not a far stretch to consider that the mall walking clubs and the coffee time clutches at MacDonald’s are vitally important for maintaining and improving Seniors mental health while keeping seniors active, engaged and happy as they age.   Equally important are the healthcare and nursing initiatives attempting to keep Seniors healthy in their own homes, in their own neighbourhoods, amongst friends and family. Enter the Senior living in their home with a sense of independence and dignity but having to make adjustments to meet the demands of maintaining a home and the garden that surrounds it.  For years the nurturing of a rose garden, or prized dahlias picked to grace a coffee table, or the sight of an ornamental cherry blossuming bringing delight every spring with its blooms, all have contributed to a positive joy and celebration for a Senior in their home.  Slowly and even suddenly, the wheelbarrow seems heavier each year, knees and hands become stiffer, and it becomes a challenge to keep up the house, let alone the garden. 


If the original design of the home and its garden has been well thought through by a designer aware and skilled in designing for aging in place, then aging in place is a real possibility.  If the ‘bones’ of the original garden have been well laid out and considered, making a garden accessible is not difficult.  If the original grading of the site; the original layout of the garden; placement of patios or decks; the inclusion of wider pathways using sustainable and low maintenance surfacing; proper infrastructure to add lighting; and facilitate rainwater harvesting (rather than having to run hoses everywhere) – if all these pieces are in place, then accessibility of the garden 10 to 20 years later, as the Senior ages, is much easier, safer, and less costly.  It is easier to modify planting beds to elevated planters when the foundations and shape of the garden’s softscape can be manipulated.  It is a genuine treat to re-evaluate plant materials for easy care, removal of invasive species, adding of self maintenance native species, as well as adding punchy colour and vibrancy, invigorating aromas and textures, all of which are enough to brighten anyone’s day.  Hardscapes such as a trellis, arbor, gazebo or pavilion, can be converted to a suspended garden that is easy to reach, or a concrete wall changed to a living wall with a vertical garden with trays that are reachable.  As the transition unfolds, a garden can be made easier to care for, easier to use and maintain, and it can be flexible for further change.  These are all features of a universal garden space that can be adapted for continuing to age in place.


While it may seem to be an oxymoron, consider the garden and its nature to be a constant environment with medicinal, recreative, and restorative properties.  The pursuit of gardening by Seniors can have very deep meaning in that it provides a reason to get up in the morning, provides that constant refreshment, and the opportunity to invite friends and family into it for celebration and visiting. The garden is constantly changing and reflects too the variety of the seasons and the gentile passage of time.  There is also a growing movement among elders, specifically those older adults who are living in senior retirement communities with access to community gardens, to focus greater attention on aspects of their retirement community often relating to environment, working in it, changing it, growing it.  These environmental benefits result in positive changes for Seniors, it keeps them mentally well and socially active, it benefits other members of the community – their grandchildren, other people’s children, and the benefits flow to the community structure itself in the forms of garden clubs, walking groups, and arts/crafts clubs.  Stemming from the good design of outdoor spaces and a holistic design vision that is inclusive and equitable for access both in the public and private garden, we can encourage, support, and make healthy lifestyles possible for Seniors as they age in place.   In other words, through thoughtful garden design - universal design – we can provide choices for Seniors which they can embrace or decline.  As designers, builders, healthcare providers, we can strive to improve and maintain a Senior’s health and keep them home with family and familiar friends, thriving and enjoying the golden years as much as they planned for and hoped for with purpose and joy.





 Eden Alternative:  Life Worth Living      http://www.edenalt.org/

 Generations United   http://www.gu.org/

 Intergenerational Landed Learning on the Farm, an initiative through The University of   British Columbia   http://www.edcp.educ.ubc.ca/landedlearning/index.htm

The Mel Jr. & Marty Zajac Foundation  http://www.zajac.com/Foundation.htm



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