Fighting Depression through Nature with an Ageless Garden

Gardening, aging in place and depression.

Do You Really Hate Your Yard or Is It Depression Talking?

As you age, you might notice how others - or you yourself - fall into the negative stereotypes of aging that are out there. Small lapses in memory become “senior moments. You justify the lack of exercise and unhealthy eating habits by saying you're “already over the hill.” You could even worry about spending our final years miserable and alone in a nursing home, but can't envision any alternatives. 

Thinking and acting differently as you age can have value to the overall quality of your life. In a recent article for CNN, Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist an assistant professor on the faculty at Emery University School of Medicine wrote that developing positive stereotypes – being satisfied with the way you're aging – can help your heart, boost your memory and result in living a longer, healthier life.

Staying physically and mentally active is the key to reducing disability. And, having a "pro-aging" mindset can also positively influence your ability to remain independent according to a study by researchers at Harvard and Yale. In fact, stereotypes about aging can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for how you experience aging.

A great way to stay both physically and mentally vibrant, engaged and active is through gardening, or what we here at Second Summer have dubbed “Elderyarding®.”

The Benefits of Nature in Reducing Depression

Gardening or just being outdoors is a wonderful low impact way to experience and engage with nature while creating a positive environment around your home if you're choosing to age in place. Over the past several years, The Journal of Environment Psychology has reported on studies of people's moods and sense of vitality before and after spending time in nature and with other people. These studies were carefully controlled for the effects of physical and social activity. 

They found that an additional effect of happiness and feeling more alive was due to just being outdoors and that the effect lasted over time from only 20 minutes of exposure to nature a day. Ask yourself, “How can I use this information in my own life?” It's unfortunately a fact that the number of people experiencing depression rises substantially among the elderly.

View Our Well-Being Classes - The Garden Academy

If you are choosing to age in place, or you have aging parents, you can use “the outdoors” around the house to improve your mood and increase your sense of vitality. No, your yard isn’t a cure for depression, but 20 minutes a day could be the way to reduce the depth and longevity of depression. Taking yourself outside might be better than depression-treating drugs that can be costly and have side effects to cope with. 

If you have a plain old yard that looks like all the others in your neighborhood, consider the physical, mental and aesthetic effects of creating an Elderyarding® design!

How Elderyarding® Can Benefit Your Health

If you've been considering creating an aging in place garden, you're already showing signs of creating a positive outlook on aging... for example:

  • You accept the fact that you are aging when you decide to re-structure your yard for aging in place

  • You're flexible when you choose a yard that supports changes due to aging-in-place

  • You envision yourself as staying useful when considering what adaptations to make now and in the future in your aging in place garden

  • You feel happy when you anticipate and throw yourself into new experiences outdoors once you have an ageless garden in place

  • You often recognize that “things are better than I thought they could be” when you're able to function, move around and handle gardening tasks because your Elderyard® is designed for ease of use, plus visual, physical and mental enjoyment.

If you start to see real value to adopting a “pro-aging” attitude, ask yourself what positive opportunities you'd like to have in your yard, such as seasonal change that is familiar and reassuring each year or maybe continual chance occurrences that cause you to stop and feel the pleasure that nature has provided. An aging-in-place garden may be just what you need to keep building those positive stereotypes.

Getting Started with Your Elderyarding® Design

If you've made the commitment to get outside and adopt a more positive attitude towards aging, getting started with your Elderyarding® garden design is easy! It all begins by developing a creative vision for your yard that will make it stand out for all the others in your neighborhood.

First, get at least one sitting spot.
You're not going to stand comfortably outside for 20 minutes a day, are you? Find a comfortable outdoor chair. If all you have is a ratty old folding lawn chair at the end of its life, add an inexpensive cushion to make sure you're really comfortable. Add a small table to hold a cup of coffee or a cold drink, or even an upturned bucket just to get started!

Next, find something pleasant to look at.
Even in the most simple yard, nature is always providing fascinating views. If you just have a single tree in the yard, you could look at the branching pattern. Ask yourself why the tree branches grew the way they did. Look at the shape of the tree to see if it's symmetrical or lopsided. Compare it to trees in other nearby yards to see whether they're growing in similar ways, maybe because there's a strong wind that is shaping them all, as you might find in coastal areas. If you have a small paved area outside, add a few blooming shrubs in containers or herbs for cooking that you can see from inside, too.

Close your eyes and let your other senses take charge.
Feel the sun or the breeze on your face and skin. If you’re in the sun, contrast the warmth of your nose with the warmth of your chin, or the coolness of your face with the coolness of your arms and legs. Notice any sounds from birds, insects or amphibians such as frogs. Listen for any patterns or changes in the location of the sound-makers over that 20 minutes.

Sit in the same space daily for a month.
Notice the similarities and differences. Consider keeping a journal and writing down your experiences each day when you return to your home. A simple lined notebook and pencil are fine or you can go for a nicer bound journal and even colored pencils or pens to write with. You can use your laptop or tablet, but sometimes you might feel like taking notes when you're outside. And the latest research has shown that there's a strong connection between heart, mind, and hand. Writing or drawing in your journal can help you to relive your outdoor experiences. Read them using your imagination to explore on those days when you're not able to get outside.

If you find yourself looking at your yard and thinking it's ugly and you hate it, stop for a minute. Ponder on that thought. Do you really hate the yard, or are you tired and depressed and not really noticing the beauty that's all around you? Do you think aging is a battle to fight or an experience to move through gracefully? Your attitude towards aging and your mindful appreciation of the beauty and nature all around you can help you to stay healthy, vibrant and engaged as you age. Just 20 minutes a day in your Elderyard® is all it takes!

Ann Yakimovicz