As a child, Agnes loved playing outside. Her free time was spent running around in her family’s backyard, laying in the grass, and staring up at the clouds. But, like so many of us, as she grew up, Agnes slowly stopped making time for nature. She didn’t notice it at first: there was the part-time job, the schoolwork for college, the nights out at bars. By the time she got married and had her first child, there was little space in her life for things like gardening. As years went by, her job, relationship, and demands of raising a family continued to take precedence; during her adult life she rarely had a chance to visit the park on a sunny afternoon, just because. As she got older, she realized she wanted to invest more time in spending time outdoors.
Agnes had always dreamed of having a small garden of her own, and now there was nothing stopping her. Still, it felt a bit lonely to embark on this alone. And besides, Agnes couldn’t help but feel wary of spending hours by herself out in the backyard, in case an accident happened. After bringing the idea up with her caregiver, the two started gardening together during their weekly visits. It wasn’t long before they had a vegetable garden full of fresh produce, and they were cooking regularly in the kitchen with their home-grown ingredients.
The Science Behind Dirt and Happiness
Researchers have known for some time that playing in dirt is directly correlated with increased happiness. Scientists at Bristol University explain that dirt contains a type of bacteria that “[activates] brain cells to produce the brain chemical serotonin,” a hormone that makes humans feel happy. Their studies imply that spending time interacting with soil might offer benefits comparable to taking antidepressants. It’s also suggested that humans can experience these positive effects from simply being around soil—specifically, by breathing in a bacteria called M. vaccae.
Researcher Dorothy Matthews also confirms that soil is beneficial to depression. From her studies on soil, Matthews agrees that “it is definitely good to be outdoors—it’s good to have contact with these organisms.” With this knowledge, there is more reason than ever to make an effort to garden together.
Why You Should Garden with Your Aging Loved One
Aside from helping alleviate anxiety and depression, gardening has a slew of other benefits that will help improve your loved one’s overall health.
Provides company and connection
As a caregiver, spending quality time outside digging in dirt is a bonding activity for the two of you. Constant conversation isn’t necessary; you can both enjoy each other’s company in silence while planting seeds and breathing in the soil’s happy bacteria. Gardening is one of the best activities for bonding: it combines several happiness-inducing factors into one experience, including being outside in nature, moving your body, and getting sunshine.
Offers support and safety
Practically speaking, gardening together also helps ensure that your loved one stays safe. They might have a fall, suffer from too much heat or dehydration, or get injured while gardening. Having you there next to them provides instant backup and potential accident prevention. Simple safety tips might be making sure your loved one has a hat and proper protection from the sun. Bring water outside to stay hydrated, and set a time limit for how long you’ll both stay outside. As a caregiver, you can also help take care of any gardening tasks that your loved one is unable to do. If back pain is preventing them from digging, you can handle that while your loved one tackles watering, landscaping design, or choosing seeds.
Creates ongoing tangible rewards
Gardening enjoyment doesn’t end when you put away the trowel—the benefits continue inside. You and your loved one can pick flowers from your garden and create freshly cut bouquets to enjoy in the home, or use home-grown veggies and herbs to cook up a storm in the kitchen. Gardening might inspire your loved one to get back into home-cooking, which often encourages healthier eating and family dinners, as well as an increased sense of connection with food.
Helps protect against dementia
We also have reason to believe that gardening is particularly helpful for decreasing the risk in older adults of developing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.“A long-term study that followed approximately 3,000 adults for 16 years found that daily gardening was the single biggest risk-reduction action participants could take against dementia, reducing incidence by 36%, and another Alzheimer’s study puts that number at 47%.”
And never fear if your loved one doesn’t have a large backyard: you can easily start a small herb and vegetable garden if you have access to a small deck or porch. You can also garden indoors with herb towers, vertical gardens, or hydroponics. Community gardens are another great way to spend time digging in soil with other nature-inclined folks—check out the ones available in your area.
Gardening together can help your loved one experience a renewed sense of purpose, a connection with nature, and can improve physical health. You might even want to invite other family members to join in on the fun, and make it a weekly family affair. No matter how you and your loved one choose to embrace gardening, you can bet that it will bring a world of benefits to everyday life.
For caregivers and family members searching for tips and programs to support their aging loved one, Institute on Aging is proud to provide a range of services and resources to help. Connect with us today to learn more.