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Gardening Said to Improve Quality of Life for Alzheimer’s Patients


There is no cure for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia that affect the elderly. Mental health professionals believe there are activities that can enhance quality of life. One therapy uses gardening as a way to improve patient's moods and decrease problem behaviors. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.



(Photo: Horticulture therapist Kathleen Brand helps patients shape up the planters. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )

It's late morning on the senior behavioral health unit at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest . Horticulture therapist Kathleen Brand tries to gather her charges.


"Would you like to come with us to the garden?, " Brand says to a patient. "Outside, we're going to go for a walk. Uh huh, a walk. Would you like to come? I can help you? Go for a walk?"


Twice a week, patients on this unit are invited to go outside and do some gardening.  Occupational therapist Elizabeth Refn says there are always some patients who don't really want to go.


"So sometimes we need to make a deal with people about going outside, says Refn.

"Sometimes juice or ice cream works quite well. Is that right? What would make you want to come with us today?"


Finally, Brand and Refn manage to convince patients to come along. The group shuffles to the elevator, goes down to the ground floor, and walks out into the sunshine. This outdoor patio has a number of small planters and raised flower beds. Brand lays out the agenda.


 (Photo: The patients' work is on display in the senior behavioral health unit. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS )


"All right," says Brand. "We have a couple of different projects we're gonna work on today, we have some planting, we have this empty planter here. Then we're gonna do some deadheading of any of our dead flowers, and then I also would like to make some plant markers."


Some patients just sit around blinking in the bright sun. One man takes a pen and starts to make some labels. Two patients eagerly grab some trowels and plants, and start to dig.


"Oh, this kills my wrist," says Alice.


Alice is small and frail. Doctors say she has dementia and short term memory loss. But when she touches the soil, old memories come flooding back.


"I had a huge yard," says Alice. "33 trees, 24 rose bushes, we had a big, big, big yard. Apricot, and a fig, and a lemon and a lime. And we were on a steep hill. I kept falling, but luckily it was dirt."


Horticulture therapy is not a new invention. It's been around for centuries. In fact, it's long been thought gardens have beneficial effects on people with mental illness.


Only recently has horticulture therapy been subject to the rigors of modern behavioral science.


Dr. Christina Gigliotti was one of the first to publish research on the effects of horticulture therapy on patients who have dementia. 


"What we have found in our research," says Gigliotti, "is that people in horticulture activities compared to other types of activities that are traditionally offered, were more productively engaged, that is they engaged in the activity that was presented to them, rather than staring off into space, rather than wandering around the room, rather than doing some behaviors we would call self-stimulating behaviors."


 (Photo: Kathleen Brand clears out some excess flowers. Kenny Goldberg/KPBS)


Gigliotti says she found dementia patients reacted more positively to horticulture therapy than to other activities like coloring. She believes it's because gardening is inherently stimulating.


Plants are able to stimulate the sense of smell, the tactile experience as well as the visual interest," Gigliotti says. "So if somebody has deficits, there's still something for them in terms of the sensory experience. In addition, it's something that is able to capitalize on people's social histories."


UCSD staff say patients seem to sleep better and are less agitated after a session in the garden.


Gigliotti says her research has found some short term effects from horticulture therapy. The long term benefits, if any, have not been measured.


Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.


"This is lantana, that's what this is called," Brand says. "It has these gorgeous little flower clusters. Butterflies like this plant. See how little it is? And now feel this leaf."



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