As a first year student on the Scottish Graduate Medicine programme at St Andrews University, I enjoyed a placement at PLANT Community Garden late last year. Through this volunteering I met many members of Tayport community and saw the benefits the garden had on their health. I wanted to share some thoughts on healing power of such community gardening in this blog.
As many of you would know, the garden grows organic vegetables which are sold to the community or gifted to the foodbank. Having these nutritious sources of fresh local food, in addition to activities such as digging, planting, and walking around the garden, are all excellent for physical health. The garden feels very serene, relaxing, and safe. Everywhere you look there are vegetable patches, flowers, trees, and wildlife. The garden acts as a foundation for workshops, primary school classes, Alzheimer’s group, the Caley Grow and Learn award, and is the heart of the community where people can enjoy the garden together. Involving the community, boosting social cohesion, and increasing social interactions are wonderful gifts the garden brings to Tayport. I think every community would benefit from having this on their doorstep, both for volunteers and attendees.
Volunteering at the garden allowed me to see first hand all its healing powers that I have learned about in my university courses. The positive impact of physical activity on physical and mental health has been well documented. Access to a green space in nature has been shown to benefit mental health, physical health and social cohesion. Green spaces can also bring ecological benefits to the community which include resilience to flooding, habitat for wildlife and improved air quality. A review of evidence-based actions to promote individual mental wellbeing by the New Economics Foundation have identified five areas of activity which are important in developing individual mental wellbeing: physical activity, giving, learning, social relationships and awareness. Through the get togethers, workshops and teaching the Garden provides all these elements. By increasing social interactions and boosting cohesion in the community this can help decrease loneliness and isolation and boost wellbeing and mental health. What’s more, altruistic acts such as volunteering bring a sense of belonging and reduces isolation . And to top it all off, the organic vegetables grown are eaten by the community and donated to the local foodbank, which increases the nutritional health of the community.
You might have heard of social prescribing. It involves helping patients to improve their health, wellbeing and social welfare by connecting them to community services which might be run by the council or a local charity. For example, a GP signposting patients with dementia and their families to support groups. This is one of the newer initiatives in the NHS whereby GPs will signpost patients to forms of support or activities that might benefit the patient’s health and wellbeing. An example of where this could be used in the future is with the Alzheimer’s Scotland group that use the Garden on a weekly basis. The photos above show some of the activities they have been taking part in.
As our population grows older, many of these people will spend more time indoors. However, with a facility like the Garden the group have a safe, peaceful environment to enjoy together. In my previous work, I have cared for many people with Alzheimer’s. Often some of these individuals struggle to retain their attention when completing tasks. However, during the activities in the Garden, many of the participants were able to complete tasks and thoroughly enjoyed the social stimulation of such a lively, fun group. I also found it very touching how well many members of the group remembered so much about the garden despite the nature of Alzheimer’s. In the past I’ve played games and sang songs with patients with dementia, it takes their mind elsewhere and boosts mood and memory. From my experience lack of stimulation and not having opportunities to get out among the elderly results in boredom and frustration. Safe, stimulating environments like the Garden are great facilities to have on the community’s doorstep.
Environment and social surroundings directly impact our health and I still feel shocked when I hear statistics that deprived areas of large cities have poorer health outcomes and shorter life expectancies; it seems we are only now understanding how strong this correlation is. I would love to see more projects like PLANT Community Garden appear across the country to improve surroundings, especially in cities.