Aging Well

Change the weather in your mind by getting outside

Gardening not only provides apt metaphors for the seasons of life, research is showing many additional physical and mental health benefits.

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Plants from my mother's garden
Liisa Ogburn

Multiple times over the last weeks I have sat down to write a post for this blog and ultimately, after a period of stumbling, abandoned the effort. Like many during this pandemic, I’m burnt out, I rationalize. Maybe an afternoon in the garden can help?

When one is surrounded by so much that is outside of one’s control, it is so gratifying to empty an overgrown flower bed, untouched for years, divide a knot of hostas, prim rose, coral bells, or holly ferns. It is satisfying to finally take a pruning saw to those out of reach branches of tulip magnolia, tea olive and dogwood that are now too think to cut with clippers.

British psychiatrist and author of The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature, Dr. Sue Stuart-Smith, wrote about this kind of activity, “You can throw yourself into any or all of these in a wholehearted and uncomplicated way because they are a form of destructiveness that are in service of growth. A long session in the garden like this can leave you feeling dead on your feet but strangely renewed inside… a kind of gardening catharsis.”

Last week, I visited my parents for the first time in nearly seven months. Employing an abundance of precaution, we ate our meals outdoors at a distance. We wore masks inside and retreated to separate corners at night. And while I couldn’t have ever imagined employing such precautions last spring when the virus first appeared, it seems this is how it must be, at least until 60-70 % of the American population (roughly 200 million) has immunity either from being vaccinated or having had COVID. And maybe for much longer than that.

In the poem, “When,” Irish poet John O’Donnell, writes, “And when this ends, we will emerge, shyly, and then all at once… and whisper that now things will be different.”

I had this in the back of mind when I eagerly pulled up my parent’s driveway, parked and immediately followed my mom into her garden. What joy to see all she had been busy doing over the many months quarantined at home. Added to this, more joy to place in used Marshall and Harris Teeter bags, seedlings cut from her autumn and maiden ferns, purple mustard seedlings, begonias, variegated hosta, and ground covers, all loaded into the back of my station wagon.

“Plant them in bunches of three or five," she instructed. "Stand back and look at the whole canvas before you put them in the ground. You want variety in leaf and color, with points of interest in each season.”

A mother's work is never done.

Research in a new scientific field called ecotherapy, has shown a clear relationship between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety and depression, not to mention how nature can lower one's blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and even reduce the production of stress hormones.

Stuart-Smith provides research, countless stories and case studies of how gardening and being in nature has been used to treat those traumatized by war or violent childhoods, those struggling with addiction and mood disorders, as well as those in nursing homes lonely and without purpose.

Of particular note, she mentions the work of Dr. Bill Thomas, who brought rabbits, hens, parakeets, cats and dogs, as well as hundreds of plants into Chase Memorial Nursing home in New York. When the New York State Health Department studied the effects of this, they found a 50% reduction in infections, a 71% drop in daily prescription-drug costs, and a 26% lower turnover rate among nurses’ aides. The death rate even fell by 15%.

It is not a far reach to see how my mother, who turns 77 today, continues to plant in me the habits and tools that may buoy and carry me through the end of this pandemic and perhaps, through the end of my life.

Anxious? Frustrated, lonely, out of sorts? Get outside. Take a walk. Notice a neighbor’s maple or oak leaf hydrangea turning shades of red. Get out your gardening gloves and clippers and get in the dirt.


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