Insights Series (4): My home, my garden story: interspecies relationships in the gardens of people living with dementia

By Dr Christina Buse and Dr Sarah Noone

Dr Christina Buse is a Lecturer in Sociology & Social Psychology at the University of York, UK

In the My Home, My Garden Story pilot study we have been exploring the role of gardens in the everyday lives of people with dementia who are living at home. We are interested in why gardens are important to people with dementia and their families, and their everyday garden practices.

We’ve been using methods including walking interviews, diaries, and visual methods (filming, sketching), to understand the embodied and sensory experiences of gardens. However, our methods had to be adapted in light of the COVID-19 pandemic (see Sarah’s blog here). This blog explores interspecies relationships or ‘entanglements’ between people, plants and animals as part of everyday experiences of gardens.

Dr Sarah Noone is a Research Associate at the University of York, UK

From the outset of the project we were interested in ‘everyday creativity’ in gardens – how people adapt and improvise in response to the challenges of living with dementia, including adaptations to environments (Bellass et al. 2018). Participants talk about making adaptations to their gardens, such as: raised beds, ‘simplifying’ gardens with plants that are easy to maintain, and – in one household – creating a ‘sensory garden’ with pleasant fragrances, and brightly coloured plants and furniture. As Ingold (2010) argues, everyday creativity is a process of improvising and ‘becoming’ with the changing materialites of plants and environments. Creative adaptations are therefore not just a matter of making changes to gardens, rather working with plants and materials in the garden.

Thornless rose in Frank and Emma’s garden

Emma (family carer) has put a thornless rose over an archway into the garden, describing thorns as a ‘hazard’ to herself and her husband. Emma says that these adaptations make the garden not just ‘dementia friendly’ but also ‘age friendly’ and ‘child friendly’ for their grand-daughter. Adaptations to the garden are also ‘pet friendly’ – made with their two cats and visiting wildlife in mind.

Sensory experiences play an important role in participants’ engagement with their gardens, and appreciation of birdsong is central to these experiences. For two participants who live in a very urban setting, the recent lockdown has enabled them to enjoy the sound of birds in their garden:

Phil: You hear a lot more of the birds now.  Now the traffic’s a lot quieter.

Judy: Yeah, it’s really nice, isn’t it.

Domestic animals also play a role in participants’ sensory experiences in the garden. As Emma, a family carer, led Sarah on a tour of the garden, her husband Frank, who lives with dementia, sat contentedly on his favourite bench in the sunshine, stroking one of their cats, and enjoying the sense of warmth and touch. The haptic dimension of engagement with the garden plays a key role in the development of the sensory experience (Allen-Collinson and Leledaki, 2015), and our findings suggest that interspecies interactions can add to this element of sensory engagement.

Frank and his cat enjoying the garden.

Maintaining gardens is an act of ‘caring for places’ that involves mutual caring relationships between people with dementia, family members, friends, neighbours, plants, pets and wildlife. People with dementia are actively involved in caring for grandchildren, pets and wildlife, and these relationships can be mutually supportive. Lynne and Karen talk about creating nests for birds in their garden, and the chickens they ‘rescued’. They also describe the ‘comfort’ and ‘joy’ they get back from animals and plants in the garden:

And she [Karen] loves being outside in the garden, and it’s that open space, the sound of the birds.  We have lots of nesting birds, as well as chickens, and we have two dogs …we both find, in separate ways, a lot of comfort and space out there.

Lynne, family carer

The borders of gardens – hedges, fences, front gardens – also facilitate exchanges with neighbours and small acts of mutual helping or caring ‘around the edges’ (Brownlie and Spandler 2018, p.257). Animals can be part of enabling connections and acts of helping, and one couple who had kept chickens talk about giving ‘the neighbours eggs from time to time’.

Karen and Lynne’s chickens (zoom screenshot)

These mutual caring relationships form part of participants’ everyday household routines. Many participants feed the birds on a daily basis, and this activity plays a central role in their engagement with the garden. Mike and Sandra shared their daily bird-feeding routine in their garden diary entries:

On his way to bring the wheelie bin to the back of the house Mike put bird seed on to both feeders.   We are not putting out too much each time because the grey squirrel(s) sometimes take the lot…

Through the kitchen window within minutes of putting seed out we saw a Blackbird and probably a sparrow feeding.        

Extract from Day 1 of Mike & Sandra’s Garden Diary
Mike and Sandra’s bird table

Mike and Sandra feed the birds each morning and evening as part of their daily household tasks and enjoy the reward of seeing the birds feeding at the table. However, this act of care for the birds visiting their garden is partially informed by their attempts to negotiate a less harmonious relationship with some grey squirrels, who frequently steal the bird seed from the table. Mike and Sandra have modified their daily routine in order to deter the squirrels from their garden, thereby protecting the birds’ source of food. Mike and Sandra’s diary entries also share that they had purposefully designed their bird table to prevent pigeons “stealing” food intended for smaller birds. These examples illustrate a further theme emerging from our findings; that interspecies interactions are not always an enjoyable aspect of spending time in the garden.

Practices of looking after plants and animals in the garden are often part of participants’ biographies. Some participants talk about how they ‘always’ had pets, as Phil (family carer) says: ‘when our children were little we had guinea pig cages in the garden…we’ve had cats and things…and we’ve always had a dog.’ Seeing animals or birds in the garden could trigger memories, and prompt biographical narratives:

I love the birds. Because I used to have a grandad that was very good. He…He used to drive […] Horse and carriages […] he used to drive the carriages, but in London […] And he was lovely…he kept chickens!

Sandra, person living with dementia

For Sandra, her relationship and connection to birds in the garden is situated within her biography and her family relationships, illustrating the interconnectedness of interspecies relationships. During the walking interview Sandra points out and names the plants and trees she has grown, enacting her embodied identity as the main gardener in the household.

Through the data gathered during this pilot study, we have begun to cultivate an understanding of the importance of home gardens in the everyday lives of people with dementia and their family carers. Exploring the dynamics between our participants, the domestic and wild animals living in their gardens, plants and trees, provides valuable insight into the role of interspecies relationships in the value obtained from gardens, and the ways in which garden spaces are used. We look forward to exploring these issues further as we develop the My Home, My Garden Story project.

Acknowledgements

My Home, My Garden Story is a collaborative project between the Universities of York and Manchester. It is funded by the University of York Pump Priming Fund. We would like to thank all our participants, co-investigators and our partner organisation.

For further information:

Contact:

Christina Buse christina.buse@york.ac.uk

Or

Sarah Noone sarah.noone@york.ac.uk

References

Allen-Collinson, J. and Leledaki, A. (2015) Sensing the outdoors: a visual and haptic phenomenology of outdoor exercise embodiment. Leisure Studies, 34(4), 457-470

Bellass, S., Balmer, A., May, V., Keady, J., Buse, C., Capstick, A., Burke, L., Bartlett, R., & Hodgson, J. (2018) Broadening the debate on creativity and dementia: A critical approach. Dementia, https://doi.org/10.1177/1471301218760906

Brownlie, J. and Spandler, H. (2018) Materialities of mundane care and the art of holding one’s own. Sociology of Health and Illness [special issue – Materialities of Care], 40(2), 256–269.

Ingold, T. (2010) Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. NCRM Working Paper. Manchester: Realities / Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. Available at: http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1306/1/0510_creative_entanglements.pdf