All that kneeling, squatting and bending over in gardens becomes more challenging when aging saps endurance, strength and dexterity. Arthritis and back pain are reminders that pace and restraint are words to heed as we get older. Seniors also face waning eyesight, along with cognitive and emotional hurdles.
If slowed by muscle aches, joint pain or more serious ailments, the healing process can be maddeningly slow. Why does it take longer for senior gardeners to heal? Generally speaking, it’s because all have some form of osteoarthritis in multiple joints, said Cary Caulfield, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-owner of Capitol Physical Therapy.
“We’re using the joints and there’s wear and tear and inflammation,” he said. “Over time, it takes more time to recover. Some have lost strength or have congenital issues.”
Thankfully, older gardeners are a resilient bunch, adapting and modifying to remain active into their 80s and 90s. Gardening is an extremely popular activity among seniors. Three out of four U.S. households age 55 and older are active in some type of gardening activity, according to a study by the National Gardening Association.
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Senior gardener is a loosely defined demographic that spans 40 to 50 years, depending on how “senior” is defined. AARP considers anyone 50 or older a senior. If you remember Howdy Doody and watched “Mister Ed,” you’re probably a senior.
The benefits of gardening in the senior years are as numerous as weeds. A Kansas State University study found gardening “to be a predictor for leading a physically active lifestyle and high life satisfaction in older adults.” Basically, the study found gardening is a dandy way for seniors to enjoy a moderate-intensity workout, shed calories and remain nimble.
Tracy Lesperance of Fair Oaks is a horticultural therapist and gardens with assisted living seniors. Using plants and plant-related products, she works with small groups to accomplish set goals through activities, like planting an herb garden in a raised bed, creating floral arrangements and plant-related crafts, seed-starting, transplanting seedlings and a number of other gardening activities. Many of the residents were avid gardeners in their more active years.
Session goals vary, but may include sensory stimulation, socialization, nurturing, mild exercise and seasonal orientation.
“When I start work in a new residence, I do my best to get to know each participant,” said Lesperance, who also is a UC master gardener. “I look forward to getting them into the garden where they often just light up. Most people have really good memories about gardening. I love working with elders who often have a lifetime of gardening knowledge to share and remember. It’s rewarding to help those with memory issues reconnect when their hands touch soil or they work with a particular plant. Even if they don’t want to participate some days, they can watch and benefit. It’s not the plants, it’s the process.”
Dr. John Chuck, a family medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente Davis Medical Offices, treats active seniors and agrees with the multitude of gardening benefits.
“Gardening with other people improves the mood and gives people a sense of purpose and accomplishment,” he said. “Older adults can be shut-ins and depressed, but gardening allows them to share the fruits of their labor with others.”
Chuck, 54, is especially proud of the employee garden at his medical office site and his nectarine tree that produces more the 100 tasty nectarines each year. He uses a push mower and a manual hand-edger in his own yard.
“Gardening can be a workout,” he said. “If you’re gardening vigorously, you can burn 350 calories an hour. I’m sweating like a pig when I’m out there. Gardening can help decrease stress and anxiety and improve your mood. The exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good.”
Taking care of your body often is more challenging for seniors who can be slowed by joint replacement, arthritis and various infirmities. Caulfield has minor arthritis in his lower back. He suspects it’s from playing football. He is a vegetable gardener, tends a couple of flower beds, mows his own lawn and loves Roma tomatoes. As a physical therapist, he identifies with his senior clients who garden.
“I start seeing a lot of them about the time you plant tomatoes,” Caulfield said of patients who visit him with gardening-related injuries. “Then again in fall because of ladders and leaves.”
The most common gardening-related injuries are to the lower back, neck and knees, Caulfield said.
“Typically, it’s from going from a squat or lower position to a standing position,” he said. “After that one, it’s lifting things, like carrying a bag of soil.”
A warmup and warm-down period is always recommended before extended periods of gardening, but most often is ignored.
“Generally speaking, the reality is we’re going to just go out there and get started,” Caulfield said. “Some type of warmup exercises would be beneficial. Being a realist, I tell them if you’re not going to do this, you absolutely need to start slow. If you have an arthritic back or knee, don’t be afraid to put ice on it to keep inflammation from increasing.”
General soreness after a day in the garden isn’t a reason to panic, Caulfield said, but joint pain should be cause for concern. Apply ice for 20 minutes and, if discomfort persists, he recommends seeing a doctor. If you use gel packs for icing aches and pains, use a towel to protect skin from direct contact with the gel pack. Ice in plastic bags doesn’t require a protective layer, he added.
“Obviously, listening to your body is important,” he said. “It might signal a brief pause to alter your position is needed. The full squat position isn’t a great one to be in for long periods of time.”
Chuck sees patients long before Caulfield.
“If they’re not used to gardening and dive right in they’ll have overuse injuries from lifting,” he said. “They have deep abrasions on arms from thorns and branches. Another common problem is sunburn. I advise everybody to wear a wide-brim hat. The first thing I recommend is long sleeves and a wide-brim hat. Then sunscreen. If you’re out for several hours, reapply the sunscreen.”
Dehydration due to forgetting to drink enough water affects some people. Chuck said older gardeners tend to forget to take breaks, then become light-headed and can take a tumble. He also said there are a “fair amount” of ladder injuries.
But if you follow the rules and listen to what an aging body is telling the mind, gardening’s rewards are many and varied. Chuck especially enjoys the edible rewards.
“People get a lot of wellness out of connecting with nature,” he said. “You planted it and now you’re picking it. There’s that great sense of accomplishment. Gardening does that, plus it bears fruit.”
STRATEGIES FOR SENIOR GARDENERS
▪ Vision challenges are common. Paint garden tool handles in bright colors to make them easier to find if dropped or misplaced.
▪ For safety and aesthetics, consider installing low-voltage lighting to improve visibility and illuminate paths and steps at night.
▪ Hand tools should have thick handles for easier gripping. Ergonomically designed tools and longer handles also allow a better grip and leverage.
▪ Vertical gardening up a trellis and various other supports eliminates bending over and enables easier access. So do window boxes.
▪ Raised planting beds also reduce bending and squatting, plus provide a place to sit. Standing beds, which are planting boxes on legs, are another option.
▪ Large containers reduce bending and stooping. Buy containers made of lightweight materials (plastic, fiberglass, foam) and place them on casters for easier moving. Soil-less potting mixes also reduce weight.
▪ Stools, chairs and benches provide comfortable platforms to garden.
▪ Arrange comfortable chairs and benches under shady trees for your breaks and for admiring your garden.
▪ Foam-cushioned kneelers and knee pads make kneeling much easier on aching knees.
▪ Seniors are especially susceptible to heat and dehydration. Work in early morning, drink water, wear a hat and gloves and apply sunscreen. Take breaks often.
▪ Low-income seniors may find it difficult to afford plants. Seeds, however, are inexpensive. Growing food from seeds can stretch budgets and ensure a nutritious diet.
▪ If dexterity is a problem, purchase transplants rather than struggle with seeds. “Flower carpets,” which are nutrient-rich sheets with seeds already embedded, roll out for easier planting.
▪ Consider reducing the size of garden areas to lower the workload. Replacing lawn areas with hardscape (patios, decks, etc.) or groundcovers are two possibilities. Another is adding more outdoor living area with a patio, deck, outdoor kitchen or other home improvement.
▪ Install a water-efficient irrigation system, preferably drip or micro-spray heads, to cut down on time-consuming hand watering. Hoses pose a tripping hazard, and watering cans are heavy when full.
▪ Garden paths should be at least 4 feet wide, to allow walker and wheelchair access, and wider at the end so wheelchairs can turn around.
▪ Avoid hanging baskets because they quickly dry out, require frequent fertilization and can be difficult to reach.
▪ Stay off ladders. Ask your children or grandchildren to help when climbing is required. Or hire somebody to finish the task.
Sources: University of Missouri Extension; Ohio State University Extension; The Arthritis Foundation; National Gardening Association; HealthMonitor.com; Arthritis Today.
Snoozing burns 30 to 60 calories an hour. Wake up and burn a lot more calories in the garden. Seniors can stay fit by working in their gardens. Taking regular breaks and drinking water is highly recommended.
Below are calories burned, per half hour of activity (calculated for 150- to 180-pound person).
▪ Hand watering lawn or garden: 61-66
▪ Mowing lawn with riding mower: 86-100
▪ Trimming shrubs with power tools: 120-142
▪ Bagging or raking leaves: 162-165
▪ Planting seedlings: 152-162
▪ Planting trees: 153-182
▪ Weeding: 152-182
▪ Digging or spading: 170-202
▪ General gardening: 200
▪ Mowing lawn with push mower: 204-243
▪ Double digging: 244
Source: University of Illinois Extension