by Missy Benson, ASLA, and Amy Wagenfeld, Affil. ASLA
Expanding sensory opportunities in outdoor spaces for children is always important, but even more so during a pandemic like we are experiencing now. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, most of us the United States lived as an indoor society with little connection with nature, especially in our low-income, under-served neighborhoods. Research tells us rich outdoor sensory experiences provide both stress release and can help build positive memories that last a lifetime—both are much needed now!
Stories of Therapeutic and Sensory Rich Outdoor Spaces
Living with Dementia
When my mother lived in a retirement community, I was lucky to work with Jack Carman, FASLA, of Spiezle Architectural Group, Inc. and Design for Generations, LLC, to provide a new sensory courtyard design for their residents and staff. When I interviewed staff to understand their needs of the space, I heard much more than the standard wish list of benches, shade, water feature, raised garden beds, and such. The staff, deeply dedicated to patients with dementia, also expressed how some of their patients lived only in the past—but with happy memories of being outdoors. Yet, others they observed lived in a painful past fraught with sad memories.
In talking with the nursing staff, I learned that most of them felt sure that the memories their patients have of being outdoors remain helpful throughout their lives, especially during times of stress. This same memory bank may serve all of us well. While there is little evidence to support whether, for individuals with dementia, limited past access to nature is associated with diminished happiness in older adulthood (now, this is a great idea for research!), there is ample evidence that for older adults, being in sensory rich gardens—touching, smelling, viewing, listening to, moving about, and tasting the plants—can evoke positive memories, improve health and well-being, and is restorative. A brief snapshot of references that supports these benefits follows at the end of this post. Please do feel free to share other pertinent articles with all of us in the comments section below.