Building a “Dementia Garden” for Cognitive Benefits During the Springtime

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Adrienne Viscio, a 63-year-old patient diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia from CaringKind, talked about how she finds solace, engagement, and cognitive benefits through gardening.

Patients living with primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a neurodegenerative disease, experience progressive isolated loss of language function without significant impairment of other cognitive domains. According to a literature review study published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, diagnostic criteria for PPA requires the language dysfunction to remain isolated for at least 2 years, and to remain the salient feature as the disease progressed.1 Even though PPA can be typically differentiated from probable Alzheimer disease and the behavioral variant of frontotemporal lobar degeneration, disease progression may often lead to deficits more consistent with these conditions.

Top Takeaways

  • Gardening can be a therapeutic and enriching activity for those with dementia, offering both immediate and long-term benefits.
  • Planning and creating a garden involve extensive organization and physical effort but can be tailored to one's changing abilities over time.
  • A thoughtfully designed garden can provide continuous engagement, socialization opportunities, and a comforting routine for individuals throughout their dementia journey.

The underlying etiologies of PPA are varied and include conditions like frontotemporal lobar degeneration, corticobasal degeneration, and motor neuron disease. Research shows that there is a strong genetic association with the disease, with 40% to 50% of first-degree relatives also impact in some cases.1 Reports of mutations in the genes for the protein tau and progranulin have helped researchers improve their understanding the disease and work towards better targeted treatments. Current therapy for PPA has focused on mood improvement and behavior change management. Other interventions, including nonpharmacological ones such as physical activity, can be beneficial for patients and their caregivers.

Adrienne Viscio, a 63-year-old patient diagnosed with PPA from CaringKind, recently shared her patient perspective with NeurologyLive® on how gardening provides her with physical, mental, and cognitive benefits. She also talked about the specific features and types of plants included in her garden as well as how gardening has challenged her abilities. Moreover, Viscio talked about how the care and maintenance of a garden can be adapted as a patient’s cognitive and physical abilities progressively decline throughout life from her experience.

NeurologyLive: What outdoor activities have you found most enjoyable and beneficial for yourself during the spring season?

Adrienne Viscio: As a 63-year-old diagnosed with PPA, I see my garden as an uplifting activity that I could embrace throughout my dementia journey, and still continue to enjoy as I grow increasingly impaired. It has provided me with physical, mental, and cognitive benefits.

And so, I began creating my "dementia garden" as a way to deal with the pain of the diagnosis. I planned garden beds of all types and continued to expand them each and every season. I dug up section after section of lawn to plant expansive beds of daylilies, hydrangeas, hostas, flowering shrubs, and perennials of all types. I planted clumps of river birch trees because their bark has such an eye-catching texture. I dug pathways and lined them with daffodils so I would have a place to stroll or be pushed in a wheelchair. I planted rows of raspberry, blackberry, and blueberry bushes so I would have fruit to pick. I built raised beds for growing vegetables, and I have a large greenhouse. Throughout the gardens, I specifically selected varieties of plants that would offer interest throughout all four seasons.

Are there any specific challenges or concerns you faced regarding your outdoor activities in the spring?

Building a garden challenged me in many ways. It took a LOT of planning and organization, budgeting, shopping/ordering, and physical exertion. Nevertheless, it is a manageable responsibility that requires regular, consistent tending, so I set a certain time period each day for garden tasks. I was able to build a routine around caring for it, which I found highly beneficial. I could talk to my plants and the birds they attracted. It encouraged socialization since I could share its beauty with friends and family. I also paint and photograph the flowers, bees, and birds.

As my cognitive and physical abilities diminish, I can outsource its care and maintenance as needed. But it will continue to offer me pleasure and peace throughout my dementia journey. I specifically pursued this activity as something that would keep me engaged, stimulated, and challenged in multi-faceted ways throughout the various stages of my illness, and would continue to offer me comfort and familiarity in later stages of the disease, and would leave a lasting memory for my family and friends.

Transcript edited for clarity. Click here to learn more about CaringKind.

REFERENCES
1. Léger GC, Johnson N. A review on primary progressive aphasia. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2007;3(6):745-752. doi:10.2147/ndt.s1493
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