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Making gardening accessible for elderly, disabled

May 18, 2011

In my lifetime, I have been lucky enough to meet and work with several dedicated direct care providers who have made gardening a part of the lives of the elderly, disadvantaged, disabled and/or special needs members of our community that they serve. Many have introduced their clients and friends to the satisfaction and tranquility of gardening for the first time in their lives.

I've also had the good fortune of knowing several devoted gardeners who, limited only by their imagination and resourcefulness, have crafted and tended remarkable gardens for years. They remain a constant source of inspiration.

But as they've grown older, decreasing physical stamina or the development of some other limitation in their physical abilities has forced some of these avid gardeners to reduce the amount of gardening that they do. They've learned to slow down, but none of them have given gardening up. When asked if it's possible to garden with compromised mobility or limited upper body strength or when in a wheelchair or using a walker, the answer is always, "Absolutely!"

The key to gardening with a disability lies in eliminating the physical boundaries that would otherwise make gardening burdensome or impossible. Achieving this often necessitates modifying basic garden structures to make them more accessible. This is best accomplished by bringing the soil up to a comfortable, workable height through the use of containers, hanging baskets, raised beds, planter tables and trellises. Choosing plants that you, the gardener, enjoy growing and eating but that don't require a tremendous amount of upkeep should be a consideration as well.

Container gardening offers endless opportunities. Container gardens can be very readily placed at appropriate heights in suitable locations. They are easily moved from one place to another and can even be positioned on wheeled stands or decorative carts. They are perfect for backyards, small patios, decks or balconies. What's more, container gardens are easily taken indoors, allowing committed gardeners to continue enjoying their hobby, even long after the growing season ends.

Window boxes offer an excellent container gardening alternative, especially for individuals who are unable to work outside. Gardeners can plant directly into soil in planter boxes, but a better option might be to place plants in pots into the boxes. The reason, once again, is that plants in pots can be easily moved, removed, or brought inside when the cold weather arrives.

Hanging baskets need not be inaccessible to persons with limited mobility or strength, either. The addition of a simple pulley system will allow gardeners, even those dependent upon wheelchairs and walkers, to raise and lower hanging baskets for easy watering and maintenance.

Trellises, or vertical wall gardens, are an often overlooked accessibility option. They can utilize existing walls and fences, or arbors and trellises constructed from wood, PVC pipe, molded plastic, brass and other metals, wire or rope, and erected almost anywhere. They are easily adapted to different heights, depending upon need, and are excellent places to grow climbing ivy, fruit, vegetable and flower plants.

I have found that raised bed gardens, which offer gardeners with physical limitations the opportunity to have aesthetically pleasing, easily accessible, highly productive garden plots, are the preferred, and often the best option. Raised beds can be designed and developed to meet the specific needs and desires of any gardener. For example, they can be fabricated with seating built into the walls or at heights that allow the gardener to sit on the walls while gardening. And table gardens, which are built completely above ground, provide legroom for gardeners who sit in wheelchairs while tending their plants.

A trickle irrigation system that can take the worry and the hardship out of watering can be inexpensively added to any raised bed garden. These easily constructed systems conserve water and can be operated by simply opening a valve, flipping a switch or setting a timer.

For sensory enjoyment, water fountains and waterfalls can be added or designed into the structure itself. And raised bed water gardens that bring plants within easy reach are another stimulating possibility.

By becoming familiar with these and other alternative gardening methods, gardeners with limitations can avoid unnecessary stress and prevent injury. By using ergonomic, adaptive, and enabling garden tools, they can reduce strain and minimize discomfort.

While millions of aging gardeners live with some sort of physical disability, gardening remains perhaps the single most practiced leisure activity enjoyed by people age 55 or older. Many continue to garden in spite of arthritis, an accident, a back injury, or an aggressive health condition. They adhere to a few basic techniques and enjoy a better quality of life. They look forward to the harvest and they continue to reap the health benefits that only gardening can bring. They are proof positive that there is no reason to give up the pleasures of a favorite pastime just because a disability has come into the picture.



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