Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

The gardening helpline

Care centres in Somerset and the Cotswolds are now part of an expanding programme improving the wellbeing and quality of life for people affected by life-limiting illness, through active and passive gardening.

It isn’t a catchy title but that doesn’t matter - the work of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture is changing lives.  

Put simply, a growing number of carers in hospices are putting their beliefs behind the fact that gardening is a wonderfully flexible medium which can transform lives regardless of age and disabilities.

Hospices in Worcester and Weston-super-Mare are just two where the gardening charity Thrive is supporting a relatively new concept in care homes - Social and Therapeutic Horticulture activities.

A newly formed STH for Palliative Care Interest Group, now has over 40 members and wants to expand.

There has been a growing understanding about the importance of the healing environment, ever since US psychologist Roger Ulrich’s 1984 study that surgery patients with a view of nature suffered fewer complications, used less pain medication and were discharged sooner than those with a view of a brick wall. 

The STH prgramme for palliative care promotes wellbeing and quality of life for people affected by life-limiting illnesses through active or passive gardening or accessing nature. 

Occupational therapist, Lisi Pilgrem is part of the STH for Palliative Care Interest Group where she runs table top gardening courses.

It is gardening at a gentle pace.

Research shows that horticulture, gardening and access to nature, whether through active or passive participation, improves wellbeing and quality of life. 

thrive logoSTH for palliative care is also about holistically managing symptoms.

People receive care from others - but being able to look after a seedling and bring it to fruition allows them to give again. Gardening can form part of a lasting legacy, particularly in palliative care. Sowing a seed, planting a tree, leaving something for others can be hugely important.

Lisi has been monitoring the sessions she has been running at the hospices. After liaising with the psychologist she has used a distress level indicator with patients before and after the session – and early results show that distress levels are lower at the end of the sessions. 

One patient commented after attending an STH session: “I went home elated. I never thought I would ever do gardening again.”

Lisi has noticed that instead of feeling not very well, many begin to feel themselves again and have a precious gift to take home for loved ones. 

“A cyclamen and heather planter from one of the sessions was given by a dying lady to her husband. Sadly within a few hours she died. However her husband was delighted with the gift.

“He told me how he was caring for that planter and would watch as the bulbs came up to bloom....a very powerful thing.”

STH for palliative care, either outside in the garden, or inside using table top methods, does work, but it is still developing. It shows that people in hospice care can still function independently. 

It also shows gardening can evoke powerful childhood memories.

Lisa explains: “I did three gardening sessions with a man; sadly by the fourth session he was too poorly to attend. 

“One of the nursing staff invited me to see him. I took in the little trees he had sown. He recognised my voice and as he lay in bed wished to see the Scots pine tree seedlings and then asked about the silver birch seedlings we had sown together. When offered the scent of crushed Scots pine needles he closed his eyes and talked about being in the Canadian woods with 70 foot tall pine trees, hearing the Siskins. 

“It must have been a significant memory and was a very calming moment for him. Scents can evoke such memories.”

St Richard’s Hospice in Worcestershire established a men’s only gardening group in partnership with Prostate Cancer UK after finding women were more likely to join support groups.

During the warmer months, this group meets in the hospice’s serene gardens and tends a few flowers and vegetables. Horticulture expert

Duncan Coombs – a recently retired lecturer from Pershore College –guides men with little or no experience of gardening and help experienced ‘green fingered’ men develop their skills. 

Duncan Coombs, now a volunteer group leader, said: “It doesn’t really matter how successful the harvest is, it’s the process of tending to the plants that the men find therapeutic.”

Lisi adds: “Research shows that gardening is good for us: just sitting — either indoors or out — looking at hedges, trees and flowers can benefit our wellbeing, and taking part in a gardening activity for just 20 minutes, three times a week, can reduce stress levels,’ Even when people are unable to access all of their garden, they might be able to manage light activities such as container gardening, and we’ve really seen the benefit that doing this has had.’

“It is such a blessing to have a gardener who will bring the garden into the lounge.”

Christina Macleod tells how being helped by a gardener from the charity Thrive made her mother’s life happier:

“My mother was a very keen gardener but is now 91 and can’t do any gardening. Life has been made so much happier, since we by accident found a qualified gardener who has done a course run by Thrive. It is such a blessing to have a gardener who will bring the garden into the lounge. So many friends with elderly parents say how fortunate we are to have someone with these skills and are keen to find someone similar for their older family members. But this is easier said than done.

Our new gardener, Jo, looks at things in a different way and really ensures that mum feels part of the natural seasons of the year. At the beginning of each session she spends time chatting about what needs to be done with mum and again at the end about what she has done. This takes up her time but is of such value to mum. It is a really positive part of mum’s week where her opinion is respected and her knowledge valued. 

This is the way that Jo looks at the work she is doing.

What books, items can be brought in and discussed about plans for the garden so mum is really involved?

Catalogues, magazines and pictures as well as the computer at times. 

What can be brought inside to do so that mum still feels involved in her much-loved garden?

Examples are planting sunflower seeds, potting up containers to be positioned carefully. Special flowers put in vases to bring the garden inside. Plastic goes on the floor and a table set up at a suitable height to make it easy.

What can mum see from the bedroom and lounge?

Jo has been in all the rooms downstairs and knows the positions of beds and chairs, and can then discuss and plan with in-depth knowledge. She ensures these areas have interest all year round.  

This year the sunflowers are very visible and make a dramatic statement placed in front of the beach hedge on a bench – so the slugs don’t attack! My mother is reminded that she planted them and how wonderful they look.

How can mum make an interesting Christmas decoration? 

Last Christmas garden foliage was brought inside. A lovely table decoration made, that was the centre piece on the Christmas meal table for all the family to admire. It was a special Christmas shared with her brother and sister in law. Little did we know it was the last Christmas they would all spend together?

Why don’t more gardeners or carers do the course at Thrive? If life has been happier and more fulfilled it will transform your clients lives and give you rewards too as older people are often full of great advice about what will work in their own garden. They have, after all, often worked in it for years.

thrive logoThe work of Thrive

Thrive uses gardening to bring about positive changes in the lives of people living with disabilities or ill health, or who are isolated, disadvantaged or vulnerable. For more information contact www.thrive.org.uk or call 0118 9885688

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