Community gardens such as those involved in the DIGnity project in Tasmania are proving to be fertile ground for social inclusion.
Every week older people and people with disability arrive by the busload to take part in a supported community gardening project led by the University of Tasmania.
Dr Pauline Marsh from the university’s Centre for Rural Health says the DIGnity project aims to create a safe and inclusive gardening space for people of all abilities.
The initiative, funded by a 12-month grant from the Tasmanian Community Fund, is run at three established community gardens on the Tasman Peninsula – Dodges Ferry, Nubeena and Dunalley.
Participants take part in traditional gardening activities, as well as art and craft to help cater for a diverse range of interests.
While some participants enjoy getting their hands dirty by watering plants or putting seeds in pots, others find pleasure in weaving with the fibre artist or simply being outdoors in the garden, says Marsh.
The DIGnity team includes an occupational therapist, mental health counsellor and artist who work alongside garden coordinators and trained gardening volunteers.
“We initially started a small pilot project to look at how a community garden might support people at the end of life and bereavement,” Marsh tells Community Care Review.
“From that, we were encouraged that there was a role to play for the community garden for broadening its support in general.”
As a key objective. the project is exploring the existing therapeutic benefits of community gardens for people with physical disabilities or cognitive impairment.
“DIGnity is intentionally not a horticultural therapy program, so we don’t set tasks for people to improve particular cognitive functions or physical capacity.
“We draw on the therapeutic components that are already part of the community garden, such as being in nature and the biophilia theory behind that; that nature itself is therapeutic. The social side is incredibly important too. There is also value in being in a space that is not an institution or a day centre but a community space,” says Marsh.
While the project has a team of health professionals that provide support to participants, the goal is to create an environment that is not clinical or hierarchical.
“The formal carers and the health providers that are involved are also part of the gardening community,” she says.
“We are not trying to replicate a day centre or a clinic space in an outdoor environment. We are just broadening the existing therapeutic qualities of the community garden.”
DIGnity attracts on average 35 participants a week, and many arrive by bus or on foot from nearby aged care facilities.
The project also reaches out to local GPs, social workers, aged and community care service providers, and consumer and carers groups to facilitate broad participation in the project.
“We have encouraged carers, both formal and informal, to bring along people who they care for,” says Marsh.
The gardens attract a mix of ages, abilities and skills – some people have dementia, while others have physical frailties and attend the garden with wheelchairs or walking frames, she says.
DIGnity also has an intergenerational element, with a small group of school children attending the community gardens to interact with the older participants.
Marsh says the healthcare initiative is a positive example of how to create more inclusive and connected communities.
“While on the one hand we can see a therapeutic benefit for the people who are coming to the community garden who haven’t been able to come in the past, we have also seen an enormous benefit back to the community garden and to the broader community in general,” she says.
“For example, the community garden in Nubeena in the past has just been working with school kids. It hasn’t had a broader community purpose or scope. DIGnity has helped that community garden open up and become a thriving community hub for people of all ages. The benefits are two ways.”
Marsh says fundamental to the project is a dignity of risk philosophy.
“It can be a challenge for formal carers to come out of residential aged care, which is a risk averse environment, and to bring people to a community garden that has uneven paths and trip hazards. We have created as safe as possible an environment in our community gardens without compromising on the fact that it is a garden.”
Seeking to minimise but not eliminate all risk has the positive effect of building the self-esteem of participants, she says.
As part of Marsh’s ongoing evaluation of the project, she is filming participants in the gardens and asking them why they attend and what they like most about the gardens.
Those that come along say they are energised by the opportunity to get away and get outdoors. One participant described attending the community garden as the highlight of his day. The garden can also have a calming effect on those who attend, especially people with dementia, she says.
“By videoing participants, particularly people with dementia we can really see their physical and emotional experience of being in the garden.”
The videos will be used to help raise awareness of supported community gardening as a health innovation, and will be shared with educators for use in staff and student training.
Next year Marsh says she hopes to expand the community gardening project and explore the potential for GPs to prescribe a visit to DIGnity as part of a person’s health and wellbeing plan.
An extended version of this article appears in the current Spring edition of Community Care Review magazine.