Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet

Horticulture and Crop Science

2021 Coffey Rd., Columbus, Ohio 43210-1086

Gardening With the Elderly


Jack Kerrigan

Many changes occur as a person ages. These changes impact a person's physical, emotional and cognitive abilities as well as social roles. Gardening can be used in a therapeutic way to address these issues and improve the elderly person's physical and emotional conditions, cognitive ability and social interactions. However, many of the changes involved in aging must be addressed by modifications in gardening practices, situations and tools. Changes that occur with age are listed in the following chart as well as the impacts of the changes and the gardening adaptations that can result in continued participation.
Life changes caused by aging Impacts Gardening Adaptations
Vision: The lens thickens, yellows and becomes opaque. Reduced clarity. Blue, violet and green harder to see. Depth perception is diminished. Paint tools a bright color. Use larger seed or pelletized seed. Grow plants with more tactile and olfactory stimulation. Use vertical planting. Create smooth surfaced paths.
Muscular and skeletal: There is reduced agility, balance and strength and an increase in tremors and broken bones. Difficulty lifting and moving objects. Falling is more likely. Gardening becomes more difficult. Raised beds reduce the need to bend or kneel. The edges of raised beds can provide a place to sit while gardening. Stools provide an intermediate step between standard gardening and raised beds. Adaptive tools with better leverage and improved grips help make gardening easier.
Temperature adaptability: The body does not adjust as quickly or as well to temperature extremes and changes. High and low temperatures are not tolerated as well. Hyperthermia or heatstroke is more likely. Heat exhaustion caused by loss of body water and salt is likely. Sunburn, eczema, dermatitis and infections increase. Garden early in the morning or late in the day. Drink water and juice and avoid alcoholic beverages. Shower frequently or splash water on the body. Wear lightweight, loose fitting clothes that cover exposed skin. Wear a hat. Apply sunscreen. Eat light meals. Discuss heat related problems that may be complicated by medications with a physician. Wear gloves. Soak cuts and punctures in a mild salt solution (1 teaspoon per cup of water) until scab forms.
Disease and chronic conditions: arthritis and rheumatism, heart disease, kidney function Strength decreases and pain increases. The person tires easily. Urination increases in frequency. Adaptive tools combined with light, easily worked soil allow gardening activities to continue. Indoor and container gardening projects are more appropriate. Frequent resting periods and a cool place to rest are needed. Bathroom facilities should be near the garden.
Concept development may decrease if the person is not active and social. Alzheimer's disease is more likely, resulting in loss of short-term memory. It becomes more difficult to learn new skills and to remember recent activities. The garden can be kept simple with less confusing plantings. Plants that trigger memories can be planted. A distinctive and familiar focal point allows for easier orientation and wayfinding.
Reaction time increases. The learning pace slows. Accidents with power tools are more likely. Avoid the use of power tools. Allow plenty of time for gardening activities, keeping the pace leisurely.
Societal Roles
Sense of security and safety is decreased. This increases the level of fear of outside events and accidents. Gardening activities should be in a safe place that provides a sense of security. Fences and walls provide security. Gardening with other people provides security and safety.
Family roles change. Economically the elderly person becomes more dependent and loses control of many aspects of life. Family and friends may move or die, isolating the person. Self-esteem and self-confidence are reduced. This can result in aggressive behavior, isolation, regression or depression. Gardening activities should be kept low in cost. The gardener should be given control over his or her area of the garden or have his or her own plants to care for. The gardener should be allowed to express individuality while working within a group. In groups, a committee structure can be used to make policies and solve problems. Social activities associated with the garden should be encouraged. Allow gardeners to teach others. Inter-generational activities are particularly effective.


Sources of adaptive tools adaptability, Post Office Box 515, Colchester, CT 06415

Lehman Hardware and Appliances, 4779 Kidron Road, Post Office Box 41, Kidron, OH 44636

Mellingers, Inc., 2310 West South Range, North Lima, OH 44452

Park Seed Co., Cokesbury Road, Greenwood, SC 29647

Walt Nicke Co., 36 McLeod Lane, Post Office Box 433, Topfield, MA 01983

W. Atlee Burpee & Co., 300 Park Avenue, Warminster, PA 18974

Sources of information from organizations and agencies

American Horticultural Therapy Association, Wightman Road, Suite 300, Gaithersburg, MD 20879

American Association of Retired Persons, National Headquarters, 1909 K Street NW, Washington, DC 20049 Council on Aging, 600 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20024

Further Reading

The Able Gardener: Overcoming Barriers of Age & Physical Limitations. Kathleen Yeomans. 1993. Storey Communications, Inc. Pownal, VT

Accent on Living. Accent Publications, Post Office Box 700, Bloomington, IL 61702

Adaptive Garden Equipment. Julia Beems. 1985. Craig Hospital, 3425 South Clarkson, Englewood, CO 80110

A Positive Approach. 1600 Malone Street, Municipal Airport, Millville, NJ 08332

Arthritis Today. Arthritis Foundation, 1314 Spring Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30309

All educational programs conducted by Ohio State University Extension are available to clientele on a nondiscriminatory basis without regard to race, color, creed, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, gender, age, disability or Vietnam-era veteran status.

Keith L. Smith, Associate Vice President for Ag. Adm. and Director, OSU Extension.

TDD No. 800-589-8292 (Ohio only) or 614-292-6181

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