Eighty-seven-year-old Joyce MacSweyn lovingly waters the plants in the new living wall at Summerset Manor in Summerside, P.E.I. The vertical garden, attached to the inside wall of the sunroom, makes her feel at ease.

"Very, very relaxing. Very quieting," MacSweyn said. "And quieting to the nerves. Very, very comforting."

Tania McQueen

'It's very important for me to get these residents involved in their household, rather than being passively entertained in front of a television,' says Tania McQueen, occupational therapist at Summerset Manor. (Pat Martel/CBC)

It's for those reasons the manor decided to install living walls in the two dementia wings, part of a pilot project to help seniors with dementia stay more active. 

"You know they all had gardens, they all had flowers to tend to and here they didn't have any," said Tania McQueen, occupational therapist at Summerset Manor.

'Get these residents involved'

According to McQueen, dementia residents often spend as much as 85 per cent of their time doing nothing — and 45 per cent of that time is spent alone. 

"So it's very important for me to get these residents involved in their household, rather than being passively entertained in front of a television where they're not getting any cognitive stimulation at all," McQueen said.

A living wall garden helps keep seniors with dementia from being bored and lonely0:31

When people with dementia get bored or lonely, they often wander. "They start pacing, they start going into other people's rooms and things like that," McQueen said. "So we're trying to involve them as much as possible."

Joyce MacSweyn and Inez Gallant

Joyce MacSweyn, left, and Inez Gallant look forward to tending the plants in the new living wall in the sunroom at Summerset Manor. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Tending the plants gives the seniors something to do. 

"Because otherwise what have you got to do?" asked MacSweyn. "So just planting is something to think about and that knowing, that you've put something into it."

The manor does have an outdoor garden, but unlike the new waist-high living walls, it's on the ground, making it difficult to reach for someone in a wheelchair. 

'Altered perception'

Even if a patient with dementia can walk, it can still be challenging to bend down to tend a garden on the ground.

"People with dementia have altered perception," McQueen said. "You will often see them bumping into things so if you've got something lowdown, a little plant that hasn't grown up really high, then they can easily trip over that and it could cause a fall." 

Watering the plants

'Dementia ruins the connections in the brain,' says McQueen, so patients need a little push. 'They've got the physical ability to water, to use the watering monitor. They just lack the initiative.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

There's not a lot of physical work in looking after the new gardens, but the seniors do need guidance and a push. 

"They just lack the initiative," said McQueen. "That's dementia, it ruins the connections in the brain so by having somebody working with them, to get them to initiate that activity." 

'Great for the soul'

"The patients get a lot of pleasure out of the garden because they feel they're actually contributing to something," McQueen said. "Which is great for the mind, it's great for the soul." 

While people with dementia often lose short-term memories, they often still remember the more distant past, when they had their gardens and flowers.

"They can talk about their favourite flowers and the scents," McQueen said. "So there's a lot of communication going on while the watering is being done."  

Water meter

Patients with dementia use this moisture meter to determine how much water to give each plant. (Pat Martel/CBC)

 Although MacSweyn said she only tends the garden "once in a blue moon," staff reminded her that's she's there every day.

"No, no," she replied. "Just once every so often, you get the chance to come down and check it out."

For MacSweyn, all that really matters are the feelings she has in the moment, as she touches a green leaf. 

"You feel like you're doing something worthwhile."