Aging in Place Outdoors: An Older Adult's Guide to Gardening without Injury

Aging in place gardening: how not to get hurt.

Gardening Tips for Senior Gardeners Who Are Aging in Place

Gardening is an activity that you can enjoy throughout life. When you're head-down pulling weeds from a flowerbed, you may not have considered how you spend time on garden tasks. But as you age, you may be surprised to discover one spring that you are now a little more easily exhausted or have bruises on your shins due to occasional bumps on the skin that's now thinning. Your hands may be less strong in using those pruning shears to shape that large bed of roses.

As you age, especially if you've chosen to age in place, consider how you might adjust your approach to your gardening tasks. An article in the New York Times by Patty Cassidy entitled "Gardening Advice for Aging Bodies" outlines some steps you can take to prepare your garden as you age in place. For example, if you're struggling to keep grass alive in shady spots where your trees have grown, replace it with easier-to-maintain ground cover like periwinkle or creeping phlox. Expand beds of shrubs with flowers and colorful foliage in place of perennials that require constant weeding and thinning. Trade lawn space for a water feature surrounded by river stones, or move your flowers closer to the house in large container full of seasonal annuals or ornamental grasses.

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Plan how to adjust your physical approach to gardening, too. After sleeping, an older body needs more time to “reactivate” muscles and tendons, so stretch, have your coffee, and eat a good breakfast before digging into your garden. Pace yourself, splitting larger projects into smaller, easily managed tasks. Switch positions and activities every 20 to 30 minutes. For example, if you were raking leaves, take a break from the repetitive motion and sit on a rolling cart to remove the withering flowers in your porch containers.

By being aware of the changes in your body and energy levels, you can adjust your approach slightly and continue to enjoy the physical movement and fresh air of gardening without strain.

A Checklist for Landscaping Chores for Older Gardeners

With a little planning and some thought, you can keep your gardening tasks comfortable, enjoyable and safe. Here's a checklist to help you plan ahead so you can handle landscape chores comfortably and enjoyably!

Warm up before tackling outdoor tasks – every time:

  • Warming up before any physical activity is essential, even more so as you age. Here are some easy warm-up exercises to get your blood flowing.

  • Squeeze a rubber ball for a few minutes to loosen your hands. As a reminder keep a soft ball or other squeezable object near your gardening tools.

  • When you first go outside, stand on your tiptoes and rock up and down a few times. This will loosen your feet and ankles and warm up your calf muscles.

  • Gently stretch your body. Swing your arms one at a time, then swing each leg. It's helpful to have a handhold like a fence or sturdy bench to stretch against or hold onto.

Plan for the work:

Being prepared means having the tools you need ready to go. Check your equipment at the beginning of the season and periodically throughout the year so your tools will be ready to go when you need them.

  • Clean and sharpen tools. Replacing the blade in your pruning saw can make all the difference in your sense of satisfaction with the work.

  • Look for new tools if you need them. Get rid of the rusty old ones that have so many wonderful memories of previous gardens but could break with the pressure of digging in the flower bed. Today, there are many newer tools on the market specifically designed for older gardeners and include many with long, lightweight handles to reduce the need for bending and stooping or ergonomic handles.

  • Test your equipment. Tighten the ladder's screws, so it's sturdy; oil the wheels on the cart or wheelbarrow. Have your pruners sharpened.

  • Check with your doctor about a tetanus booster. Tetanus can live in the soil and get into your body through a cut or scrape from a tool's sharp edge or the thorns on your roses. Adults should get a booster shot every 10 years.

Put on clothes reserved for gardening (what you might call "barn clothes"):

Wearing proper clothing can keep you comfortable and safe. From bugs to the sun, plenty of potential hazards can be eliminated by dressing appropriately.

  • Wear gloves to protect your hands. Look for flexible neoprene gloves for handwork like setting out plants or working with containers, and add a pair of leather gloves for rough work like hauling branches or trimming trees.

  • Wear rugged shoes that stay on your feet for support and protection – no flip-flops that can trip you up or cause you to stumble and possibly break a hip.

  • Socks are a must to absorb moisture and reduce or eliminate blisters. Try tan or brown sox and make a fashion statement by matching the soil in your yard!

  • Wear long pants and a long-sleeved shirt to keep down the bug bites, to pad knees and elbows a bit, and to protect the skin on your arms and legs from the sun's rays.

  • A hat can protect your head and face from the sun and can help to better manage the glare your older eyes now notice more often.

Make it easy to listen to your body:

As an older gardener, you need to be aware of your body and your limitations. You may find that you tire more easily and need to stay hydrated. Take steps to make listening to your body easier, and pay attention!

  • Put a lightweight stool or lawn chair near the area where you'll be working. This makes it easy to take a quick break when you get tired. Store bug spray and sunscreen nearby to reapply if needed.

  • Place a bottle of water and a snack nearby. A covered container with an apple, celery and peanut butter, or a few nuts and dried fruit can keep you hydrated and energetic. Keep drinking water even if you don't feel thirsty. That sense of thirst can disappear with aging.

  • Know your limits, especially if you're taking medication that makes you drowsy or slows your reaction time. Plan your work to allow your mind and body full control, such as a bit of careful pruning first, followed by more flexible tasks like weeding and sweeping.

Remember, gardening isn't a marathon. Allow yourself the time to stop, rest, drink or eat, or to quit when you're tired. And also allow yourself some time for relaxation and delighting in the garden. Isn't that the whole pointf

Ann Yakimovicz