Appealing to the senses

A blossoming sensory garden initiative by the RMBI is helping to both lift the spirits of care home residents and connect with their past, as Sarah Holmes discovers

While gardens are a source of pleasure during the summer months, imagine if an uneven paving stone was enough to limit your enjoyment of a flower bed in full bloom. For the older generation, the great outdoors can sometimes feel like a hazardous place, with the security of indoors often seeming a far more sensible option.

Forty-one per cent of adults over the age of seventy take a twenty-minute walk less than once a year, according to statistics published by the British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health in 2012. In care homes, the figures are more worrying still, with seventy-eight per cent of men and eighty-six per cent of women classified as inactive.

At Queen Elizabeth Court in Llandudno, however, the scene could not be more different. The Royal Masonic Benevolent Institution (RMBI) care home is set in an acre of sprawling lawns that play host to an award-winning patchwork of raised flower beds and vegetable plots. And thanks to a network of pathways, the garden is completely accessible to its residents. But it is the home’s sensory garden, funded primarily by local Freemasons and volunteers from its Association of Friends, that’s the real pièce de résistance.  

One of the four central masonic charities, the RMBI is dedicated to looking after Freemasons and their dependants in retirement, and sensory gardens are its latest initiative to improve the lives of residents in its care homes. Designed to stimulate all five senses, the gardens are especially therapeutic for people with dementia. ‘We want all of our residents’ lives to be as fulfilling as possible,’ explains Debra Keeling, Dementia Care Advisor at the RMBI. ‘The sensory gardens are fine-tuned to provide a safe, stimulating space that benefits all residents, including those with dementia.’ 

Working with landscaping specialist Ward Associates, which has links with the University of Stirling’s leading dementia centre, the RMBI developed a sensory garden blueprint in 2011 that could be used in its homes, with the help of grants.

In a sensory garden, colours, shapes and special features are introduced to assist visual impairment. 

Wind chimes and water features aid hearing, with specially surfaced paths creating noise when residents walk on them. Plants with different textures are grown so that people can touch and enjoy the variety, while cultivating herbs and vegetables means the residents can taste fresh, home-grown produce. 

With an expanding dementia support unit, Queen Elizabeth Court was a natural candidate for a grant, and its sensory garden helped the RMBI home take second place in the 2013 Llandudno in Bloom awards – adding to its roster of wins. 

‘We want all of our residents’ lives to be as fulfilling as possible. Sensory gardens provide a safe, stimulating space that benefits all residents, including those with dementia.’ Debra Keeling

While his work may be award winning, for Alan Roberts, the horticulturalist at Queen Elizabeth Court, outstanding resident care is the only priority when it comes to maintaining the garden. ‘It’s nice to win awards, but at the end of the day it’s the residents’ garden,’ he says. ‘It’s here to benefit them.’ 

Roberts acknowledges that without the RMBI’s investment and expertise, the sensory garden would never have happened. From flower beds raised to wheelchair height through to sheltered seating areas, the garden is an accessible and engaging space for all. Plants and flowers that appeal to the senses are particularly important for residents with dementia, for whom the smell of lavender or the sight of a daffodil is enough to reinvigorate a host of comforting memories.  

Encouraging involvement

There are plans for more improvements, too. ‘We’ve decided to create a water feature to get the residents out more, and eventually we’ll have decking with more raised flower beds outside the dementia wing, so it’s easy to access,’ Roberts explains. At present, the home has eleven raised beds where residents plant their own produce, such as tomatoes, lettuce and strawberries – and it is up to the residents to nurture everything through to harvest, when it will go straight to the kitchens, then onto their plates. 

‘It’s a great confidence booster,’ says Gary Carr, Activity Coordinator at Queen Elizabeth Court. ‘Our residents’ faces light up when somebody compliments them on something they’ve grown.’ 

Although it can be difficult to entice people out of their rooms, Carr and Roberts are never deterred. They regularly organise sessions to make hanging baskets and sunflower-growing competitions. ‘It’s an incredibly useful space,’ says Carr. ‘It adds another level of engagement to the activities, and is a great source of stimulation for residents in the dementia wing.’

By high summer, many residents will be visiting the garden at least once a week – some even two or three times a day. One resident in particular, Valerie Morris, adored the garden. Having been a keen gardener throughout her life, Val could often be found planting her favourite geraniums or engrossed in a gardening book. When she was moved to the dementia wing during the last four years of her life, the sensory garden provided a great source of comfort. 

‘Val was a lovely lady,’ recalls Roberts. ‘The garden really helped in the last few years. It reminded her of when she used to garden with her son. We always made sure there was a vase of geraniums in her room.’

It’s the willingness of staff like Carr and Roberts to go the extra mile, combined with the RMBI’s strategic sensitivity to evidence-based innovation, that allows the care homes to excel in the field of dementia care. 

‘We are experts in this area, and the sensory gardens are a key part of our offering for people with dementia,’ says Keeling. ‘It’s all about facilitating people’s interests, and the great thing is that the gardens can be enjoyed by everyone. All RMBI care homes with specialist dementia units already benefit from sensory gardens, so the next step is to introduce them to our other homes. It’s something that we will continue to develop to give real quality of life to our residents every day.’

Sowing the seeds

In addition to central funding from the RMBI, each care home has a dedicated volunteer group known as the Association of Friends. Their activities support care home provisions, such as the sensory gardens, and members also volunteer as companions for residents. 

Every year, their efforts culminate in a big outdoor event. This year, Queen Elizabeth Court will be gearing up for its annual summer fete, which will see more than twenty lodges and local businesses arrive to peddle their wares from marquees. Last year’s attractions included artisan cheeses and charcuterie, a dog display, the West Mercia Lodge brass band and a residents’ strawberry stall. 

To find out more, visit www.rmbi.org.uk/pages/association-of-friends.html 

Published in RMBI

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