SPENDING TIME in the garden is a great way to relax and focus your mind. Whether you seek to relieve chronic stress, solve an elusive puzzle or just stop thinking about work, a walk through the garden is often the best mind-altering experience you can get.
Many famous thinkers throughout history have used the garden as a tool to help figure out complex problems. As a young biology student, I remember reading about Charles Darwin’s habit of daily garden walks on his dedicated “Thinking Path.” My personal love of walking was at least partially inspired by this. I figured, “If garden walks helped Darwin conceive the theory of evolution by natural selection, what can they do for me?”
While no one quite knows how nature affects the brain, there is little doubt that it does. As the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks commented, “In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of nonpharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.”
Given the potential for gardens to positively affect the brain, perhaps it should be no surprise that garden walks can be effective therapeutic tools for people with memory loss.
Enter the Memory and Brain Wellness Center at UW Medicine and Seattle Parks and Recreation. These honorable institutions have partnered to create a unique and progressive treatment for memory loss called Garden Discovery Walks. In fact, this program is so progressive that Seattle Parks is the only parks department in the country that offers dementia-friendly recreation programming.
For the past three years, a noble band of therapists, doctors and volunteers has organized a walk on the first Friday morning of each month. The walks allow participants to experience the garden intentionally and at an easy pace, with options to sit and rest along the way. The program visits a new garden each month, with notable sites including Kubota Garden, Seward Park, Dunn Gardens, Bradner Gardens Park and Bellevue Botanic Gardens. The two-hour program includes a guided tour followed by nature-based art crafting with licensed horticultural therapist Laura Rumpf.
The concept of the program is simple: Spend time in nature. While nature brings cognitive stimulation for everybody, it can be especially helpful for people with dementia. By creating a safe environment, garden walks can reduce anxiety and make it easier for those with memory loss to interact with people around them. The art-crafting part of the experience allows participants to engage their motor skills and access their inner creativity.
The experience is so powerful that new spaces in the program rarely open up. Because participants see the greatest benefits from repeated exposure, registered walkers are given priority in monthly sign-ups. Over the past three years, friendships, community and a waiting list have been built.