Gardening is a popular hobby, but bending, kneeling and working the soil can become physically challenging with age. Below, experienced gardeners share their tips for adapting gardening for older adults, making this outdoor activity easier and safer.
How Does Gardening Help the Elderly?
Gardening is one of the best activities we can do outdoors. It stimulates all the senses, strengthens our connection with nature, and can reward us with beautiful surroundings, fresh flowers and even nutritious food.
“It’s restorative, even if you have dementia,” assures Dee McGuire, a horticultural therapist who worked with seniors at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital in Baltimore, Md., before starting her own practice.
Countless studies have proven the physical and emotional benefits of interacting with green spaces and even passively observing them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes gardening as a multicomponent physical activity that includes aerobic, muscle-strengthening and balance training elements and counts toward weekly exercise recommendations. Not only does working outside in nature help older bodies remain strong and flexible, but it also provides opportunities for exposure to sunlight, which can boost vitamin D levels and improve mood.
Gardening is inexpensive, therapeutic, rewarding and even social, which is why it remains popular with Americans well into their golden years. The 2019 National Gardening Survey conducted by the National Gardening Association found that nearly three-quarters (74 percent) of all American households participated in lawn and garden activities in 2018.
Despite steady interest in gardening, there is no question that the physical aspects of this pastime become more challenging with age. Bending, lifting, kneeling, squatting, weeding and pruning—not to mention dealing with the sun, heat and bugs—can be problematic for older gardeners.
Fortunately, there are ways to cope. For example, Bruce Butterfield, late market research director of the National Gardening Association, says his mother enjoyed gardening until her death at age 96. Despite mobility challenges, she was able to continue growing flowers in about 70 big pots connected to an automatic irrigation system.
“She placed them all around the patio so she could get to them easily using her walker,” Butterfield recalled.
Like any activity, finding a senior friendly approach to gardening is all about emphasizing the gardener’s abilities and accommodating their limitations. A little bit of creativity can go a long way. Horticultural therapists like McGuire specialize in creating accessible, plant-dominated environments with the purpose of facilitating healing interactions with nature. Whether your loved one has been blessed with a green thumb their whole life or you’re looking to get them involved in a new hobby, try these expert tips to help them remain active and connected to the natural world.
Tips for Making Gardening Easier for Elderly Loved Ones
- Reassess the senior’s yard or larger garden spaces with the goal of lowering its overall maintenance. If regular mowing is a problem, remove lawn and replace it with attractive groundcovers, mulched beds, and paved areas or paths for improved accessibility.
- Add comfortable outdoor benches or chairs under shady areas for a convenient place to rest while gardening and a pleasant spot to sit and admire one’s handiwork.
- Create raised beds to improve drainage and make harvesting easier. Lightweight plastic landscape timbers can be stacked to form raised beds at waist or wheelchair height if necessary. This will minimize bending and straining, which is especially beneficial for seniors with back and joint pain. Be sure to make them narrow enough so that anyone can easily reach into the center of the bed.
- Make vertical gardens by growing vining plants upward using trellises, tomato cages, bamboo stakes, fences, walls or arbors as supports. This is ideal if outdoor space is in short supply, and it can make harvesting easier.
- If possible, change outdoor steps to wide, curving, gently sloping paths. Use pavers or fine gravel to line these paths rather than chunky wood chips or river rocks. Paths should be at least four feet wide to allow walker and wheelchair access and wider at each end so there is ample room for the senior to maneuver their mobility aid and turn around.
- Depending on where you live, installing fencing may be necessary to keep out deer and other pests. Add latches and locks to gates if the gardener has memory problems and is prone to wandering.
- Install an irrigation system to cut down on hand watering, and add low-voltage or solar-powered lighting to improve visibility on footpaths and steps in the evenings.
- Plant in resin or foam-walled containers and use lightweight soilless mixtures to reduce the weight of each planter. To make them even more mobile, put larger pots on casters.
- Avoid hanging baskets since they dry out quickly, require frequent fertilization and can be difficult to reach.
- If a senior does not have outside space for a garden, consider joining or forming a community garden. Many communities also have botanical gardens or well-maintained parks that allow a loved one to appreciate the foliage even if they cannot grow their own. A trip to a local garden center or home improvement store is also an option.
- Try bringing the outdoors inside for older adults who have limited mobility or are bedbound. Research easy gardening activities for seniors, such as planting a mini-garden in pots on a windowsill or creating a maintenance-free terrarium in an old glass or plastic container. Simply having some greenery around will surely lift their spirits.
- Protection against pests and the elements while gardening is important, too. New York City dermatologist Dr. Arielle Kauvar says gardeners should slather on sunscreen and insect repellents before putting on clothes to ensure no area is overlooked. “And don’t forget to protect your lips,” Dr. Kauvar notes, suggesting a lip balm with an SPF of at least 30.
- Work in the mornings and evenings, when the sun is low and it’s coolest outside.
- Drink plenty of water during and after outdoor gardening sessions. Seniors are especially prone to dehydration.
- Wear sturdy closed toe shoes, a broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses and gardening gloves.
- Bend at the knees and hips to avoid injury.
- Move from one activity to another to avoid straining any particular muscle group.
- Paint tool handles in neon colors or wrap them in brightly colored tape so they’re easy to find if dropped.
- If a senior is experiencing issues with manual dexterity, they may find it difficult to grip and wield gardening tools. Try wrapping foam around tool handles or sliding foam tubing onto them to make them thicker and easier to control.
- Use manual shears instead of power hedge clippers to avoid accidents.
- Look into gardening tools for seniors, such as kneeling benches, ergonomic tools and garden carts that allow for both storage and seating.
- Hire labor or ask younger family members to handle the most strenuous activities like heavy lifting, mowing, digging and grading.
Do you care for someone who enjoys gardening? How have you adapted existing green spaces or created new ones to ensure they can continue tending to plants? Share your tips and experiences in the comments below!
Do you have a green thumb yourself or aspire to develop one? Join fellow caregivers in a popular discussion dedicated to the many ways that gardening can be both fun and therapeutic: Gardening as Therapy.