Positive Ageing Through Gardening - Role of Technology & Wearable Devices

By Harry Anderson

Increased life expectancy suggests in the next 40 years the portion of the population over the age of 65 will double to around 25 per cent. People are living longer, and the challenge is to improve wellness and enjoyment of life as people get older. Gardening is a popular leisure activity in older adults. Gardening not only provides exercise similar to walking, swimming and jogging and keeps people 'off the couch'. It provides a therapeutic activity and engagement that promotes positive ageing principles in other ways, such as mental health, sense of worth, satisfaction and social engagement. Long term research has shown older gardeners are more healthy, and have a better quality of life, than people who do no work in their gardens. This applies even to groups of older people who exercise regularly. Walkers who garden are healthier than walkers who don't garden.

Research has shown that assistive technologies can play an vital role in improving quality of life and independence for older adults. These technologies are being widely used to monitor and check people’s physical health, particularly those already suffering from chronic age-related conditions.

But, the challenge is that older folk are less capable of using the Internet, modern technology and various wearable devices to monitor activity. It is well documented that there is a low adoption rate of modern technology among older adults as many do not understand or see the benefits of using new 'fanged' technology.

Many modern tools and wearable devices that could be used to set targets and monitor health, activity levels and social engagement are denied to older adults because they are too complicated and 'technical' for older folks to use. Making simpler and more effective tools and devices will boost the benefits of the gardening for positive ageing by setting activity thresholds and goals, monitoring participation, and targets for social engagement and interaction.

The aim of this article is to answer these questions:
  1. Can the introduction of wearable smart devices or sensing technology improve the user experience and benefits of gardening for positive ageing outcomes?
  2. Can gardening be used to drive technology adoption of modern technologies by older adults by showing them how such devices will improve their health, happiness and way of life?

The article will explore ways in which wearable and sensing technologies can be applied to gardening. It will explore the development of a community and home gardening system that uses contextual data and wearable devices to encourage physical activity, motivation and social engagement in older adults.

Gardening is a powerful tool for positive ageing. Better technology, designed for use and adoption by older folk, can make gardening work better to improve the quality of life, health outcomes and well being of older people.

Benefits of Gardening as a Physical Activity

There is clear evidence for the effectiveness of gardening as a tool for promoting proper levels of physical activity in older adults. Gardening is a popular past-time, recommended by support groups and health care professionals for keeping people more active and outdoors.

In a systematic review of 22 articles on the topic, Wang and MacMillan (2012) found that gardening promotes physical strength, fitness and flexibility as well as overall health and quality of life. Researches have confirmed that gardening provides enough physical exertion to satisfy exercise requirements (Park, 2008).

However, there is an important distinction between 'physical exercise' and 'physical activity' that expands the benefits of gardening.

Physical activity is non-exercise activity that is still physically engaging (tasks of daily life that are not sedentary such as walking, shopping, Do It Your Self (DIY) tasks and gardening) (Ekblom, E.B. 2014)*. Research suggests that non-exercise physical activity is just as important as physical exercise for cardiovascular health and longevity in older adults.

A 12-year study of 4232 individuals over 60 in Stockholm, found that those participants who had high amounts of physical activity in their daily life (through gardening or DIY activates) had a 27 percent lower risk of heart attack or stroke and a 30 percent lower risk of death from all causes - regardless of how much formal physical exercise was done by the individual. (Ekblom, E.B. 2014)* This highlights the importance non-physical activity in longevity and cardiovascular health for older adults.

Reference: Ekblom, E.B. (2014). The importance of non-exercise physical activity for cardiovascular health and longevity. Department of Medicine, Karolinska University Hospital.).

Role of Community and Urban Gardens in Positive Ageing and How Technology Can Help

Community gardens and urban gardens in flats and public spaces is a growing worldwide phenomenon. These gardens provide fresh vegetables and herbs as well as satisfying activities, community participation and a sense of worth and achievement. Importantly they provide community engagement and social interaction for their members. These gardens alleviate the alienation and isolation that can affect older people when they retire and stop working. Many blocks of apartments and high-density housing complexes now have community gardens on their roofs and in open areas. Some community gardens are indoors, and some groups help maintain gardens on individual balconies and other spaces. They provide a sense of worth in growing food and flowers and a sense of achievement when crops are harvested and flowers bloom.

They provide exercise and physical activity to older people who may otherwise be stuck at home with nothing to do. They help people to make friends and become involved in their local communities bringing urban gardeners closely in touch with nature and the source of their food, and the environment.

Community gardens provide many social benefits that are important for positive ageing. Community gardens often provide individual gardeners with their own patch or plot to grow vegetables and other crops. In other cases groups work as small teams or as an overall community to work together in gardens. All types bring people together to mix socially about a common theme. Gardening is a worthwhile activity bringing people back to nature and the environment in a very special way.

Once again, modern technologies can foster the development and running of these community gardens and well as monitoring participation, engagement and social interaction. Even simple thing such as making list of friends, setting targets for crops, work programs and development contact links can be very valuable worth simple technologies suitable for older folk. Providing simplified seasonal planting schedules, information about plants, soil management, weed control and watering is important and modern technology can be very helpful if available is a suitable form. Many older people struggle with doing complex internet searches and compiling the information into summaries and checklists. Simpler ways are needed.

Better ways are required to foster and improve the role and benefits of community and urban gardens for positive ageing.

Benefits of Gardening for Improving Mental Health

There is substantial evidence for the benefits of gardening on the metal health of older adults. Gardens are already being actively used for rehabilitation and therapy, a practice is known as Horticultural Therapy. The type of gardens are used ranges from ‘views of nature’, use of indoor plants, small gardens and up to fully equipped therapeutic greenhouses (Detweiler, 2012).

Research has shown that gardens and gardening help to reduce stress, lower use of ‘as needed’ medications, increase feelings of calm, relaxation and accomplishment.

Other studies have shown that gardening leads to a significant improvement in self-esteem in 9 out of 10 cases (Pretty, Hine & Peacock, 2006)*. In cognitive therapy, Therapeutic Horticulture was found to help patients regain lost skills, improve memory, attention, sense of responsibility and social interaction with few or no adverse side effects (Detweiler, M., 2012)**. Additionally, indoor gardening improves cognition, sleep and agitation levels in Dementia patients (Detweiler, M., 2012)**

* J Pretty, R. H., Peacock J. (2006). Green exercise: the benefits of activites in green places. Biol Education, 143-148.
** Detweiler, M. (2012). What Is the Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly?

How Gardening Improves Social Engagement

Aside from the physical and mental benefits, gardening has been shown improve the quality of life of the elderly. It is a very effective means of driving social engagement and building relationships (Wang and MacMillan, 2012)*.

Community gardens offer an opportunity for those who may not have access their own a garden to become involved in horticulture with the added benefit of joining a group of like-minded individuals.

Austin and Johnston (2006)** investigated the effect community gardens had on nursing home residents finding that there was a general trend of improvement in physical fitness, feeling and overall health while there was a statistically significant improvement in participant’s level of social activity and quality of life perceptions. A research project undertaken by Kingsley, Townsend and Henderson-Willson (2008) examined the ways in which a Community Garden in Port Melbourne, Australia contributed to elderly member’s health and wellbeing and social engagement. The researcher’s qualitative study showed that the members of the community garden felt that it was ‘a sanctuary where people could come together’ as well as ‘a source of advice and social support’ and a place that ‘gave them a sense of self-worth and involvement’. The community garden also provided range of health benefits such as improved fitness and nutrition. Gardening can therefore be a catalyst for fostering social integration and relationship building for older adults.

* Wang. D, Macmillan. T (2012). The Benefits of Gardening for Older Adults: A Systematic Review of the Literature
** Austin. E, Johnston. Y (2006). Community Gardening in a Senior Center: A Therapeutic Intervention to Improve the Health of Older Adults. Therapeutic Recreation Journal.
*** Kingsley. J, Townsend. M., Henderson-Willson. C. (2008). Cultivating health and wellbeing: members’ perceptions of the health benefits of a Port Melbourne community garden. Leisure Studies.

How Poor Technology Adoption Impedes Positive Ageing

Adoption of new technology in older adults is a hot topic of discussion within positive ageing literature because of the opinion in the gerontology field suggesting that new technologies could be extremely beneficial for the aged sector as a whole (Shultz, 2014)*.

Smith (2014)** provides revealing statistics about Internet, smart phone, tablet and social media usage in older adults in America that showcases the low adoption rates among older people.

The research suggests there is are two macro groups of older adults: the first group (younger, highly educated, more affluent seniors) has much higher technology adoption than the second group (older, less affluent, often with significant challenges with health or disability) who are largely disconnected and have low rates of technology adoption.

Smith (2014) also highlights the the barriers older Americans face in adopting of new technologies. The key barriers identified were:

* Shultz, R. (2012). Advancing the Aging and Technology Agenda in Gerontology. Gerontological Society of America, 55(5), 724-734.
** Smith. A. (2014). Older Adults and Technology Use. Pew Research Center. from https://www.pewinternet. org/2014/04/03/older-adults-and-technology-use/

Wearable Devices, Sensing Tools, Feedback and Information Sources for Positive Ageing

Clearly there are well known benefits for using and promoting gardening as a tool for positive ageing. New technology can enhance the benefits, adoption rates and ensure better outcomes for older people interested gardening. But the common approach assumes that the existing technology can be adapted for this purpose and that older people can learn to make use of gardening apps, website, social media, blogs, message boards, Facebook and other tools. This approach does not work!

What is needed is a set of customises and simplified tools specifically designed for older people. The ageing of the population throughout the world clearly means that there is a market for these custom tools.

Several groups have developed Ipads specifically for seniors. One example is GrandPad Senior Tablet. This uses a very large tablet at its core. It runs a customized version of Android, specifically designed for older users. It includes a wireless charging stand, a cover, and a stylus. It includes a Phone App, email and messaging apps, a camera, Photo app and Facebook connection. All these tools are built-in and are accessed via very large button on the home page. That is all, these are the only tools most seniors need and can quickly learn to use. The function of many tools need to be distilled out, simplified and adapted

Regular gardening has been shown to prolong life expectancy
Regular gardening has been shown to prolong life expectancy
        Source: Marie griffiths at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Children love gardening as well, and love their grandparent's garden
Children love gardening as well, and love their grandparent's garden
        Source: Linda Bartlett [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Many older people spend hours and hours gardening, which stops them being inactive and give them a sense of purpose. Gardening can prolong life and improve the enjoyment of life.
Leaves make an idea mulch. It is like adding a layer of compost over the soil surface
        Source: Joe Mabel [Public Domain)], via Wikimedia Commons
Cats enjoy it when their owners work in the garden. They mind the shoes!
Cats enjoy it when their owners work in the garden. They mind the shoes!
        Source: Jim Archambault [Public Domain; USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service], via Wikimedia Commons
Community gardens are a great place to meet people, get recreational activity and get purpose and fulfilment in life
Community gardens are a great place to meet people, get recreational activity and get purpose and fulfilment in life
        Source: By John Lord from Edinburgh, Scotland [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Rooftop community gardens have many social benefits and promote community interaction and the spirit of working together
Rooftop community gardens have many social benefits and promote community interaction and the spirit of working together
        Source: Public Domain