Therapeutic gardens in Singapore
Still a new concept, these gardens are said to help improve mood and mental well-being.
Therapeutic gardens in Singapore are still a new concept. However, there are such gardens islandwide and they are said to help improve mood and mental well-being.
Ageless Online speaks to Tham Xin Kai, design director of Hortian Consultancy and co-founder of Hortherapeutics, about these gardens and where one can find them:
What is exactly is a therapeutic garden and what needs to be in there for it to be therapeutic? How is it different from just a park or a garden?
In general, while outdoor nature-settings such as parks and gardens provide a calming effect and mental relief to users, therapeutic gardens are purpose-built outdoor spaces to encourage and facilitate plant-people interactions guided by a trained practitioner. Often, the design of therapeutic gardens takes into consideration the needs of specific users, such as frail seniors, those with dementia, and those with cognitive impairment, physical, mental and behavioural health conditions, as well as those requiring rehabilitation.
Overall, there are two important considerations when defining therapeutic gardens. Firstly, the gardens need to exhibit healing and restorative features to promote the recuperation of health to the users. This can be achieved through various features in the gardens such as the spatial layout and how plants are curated to encourage people-plant interaction. Secondly, it should also provide a setting in enabling the process of rehabilitation from taking place, i.e. how the gardens can help to facilitate in various therapeutic activities, including therapeutic horticulture.
What are the benefits of therapeutic horticulture to seniors?
Therapeutic horticulture is the participation of horticulture activities conducted by a trained professional, using plants or plant-based activities to facilitate in the well-being of individuals or groups. Simply by taking a stroll in a garden and engaging in the sensory elements can benefit them greatly. For example, smell of fragrant flowers and herbs may trigger in them old memories and they can recollect these memories to their friends and loved ones, increase social interaction and bond.
Participating on nature-based activities like gardening or arts and crafts with plant materials help to train their gross and fine motor skills, muscular strength and eye-hand coordination. This in turn aids in improving their Activities of Daily Living (ADL) skills, hence improving their quality of life.
I understand you have been involved in a number of such projects in nursing homes (Ren Ci Nursing Home (Bukit Batok) and St Andrew’s Nursing Homes) and public parks. Can you share where seniors can enjoy therapeutic horticulture in public including some more recent projects of yours and others by the National Parks Board (NParks)?
NParks is currently developing a network of therapeutic gardens in public parks, which the aim of establishing 30 of them around Singapore by 2030. Some existing gardens include Tiong Bahru Park, Telok Blangah Hill Park, Punggol Waterway Park, Jurong Lake Gardens, HortPark, Choa Chu Kang Park, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park Pond Gardens.
Currently, NParks also have a therapeutic horticulture programme, where interested groups can register under the website – www.nparks.gov.sg/gardens-parks-and-nature/therapeutic-gardens/therapeutic-horticulture-programmes.
Can you share one of your projects, the elements in it and how it is therapeutic?
During my stint as a landscape architect at NParks, I was involved in the design and implementation of the therapeutic gardens at Tiong Bahru Park, Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, and Choa Chu Kang Park.
There are several factors when considering the location in the design of the gardens. Firstly, considering the physical limitation of senior uses, sites were selected based on their proximity to the vehicular drop-off areas and nearby amenities such as toilets, washing areas and drinking fountains. Secondly, relatively flat terrains were chosen for the ease of movement, especially for people on wheelchair, thus maximising a variety of people-plant interactions and experiences as much as possible within the garden enclosures. Thirdly, In the tropical climate of Singapore where the day temperature can range between 30 to 33°C, adequate shade in the form of existing mature trees is crucial to provide respite from the sun. Studies have shown that the temperature in outdoor area shaded by trees can be significantly be reduced by 2.5°C as compared to that in an unshaded outdoor area. Lastly, borrowed greenery become an advantage to enhance the landscape experience in the gardens.
In designing the circulation with seniors and those with dementia in mind, pathways are set with simple and clear layouts. The circulation in both gardens consist of closed-loop paths, in the form of a figure-of-eight to allow users to navigate easily through the spaces. This is crucial when designing for people with dementia, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease where they tend to lose their ability to recognise familiar places, resulting in them wandering around, getting lost and confused about their location. By having a closed-loop path, those with dementia will be able to move around the garden safely and likewise, the caregivers accompanying them will be assured of their whereabouts within the garden. In addition to this, the perimeters of the gardens are well-defined, with screening plants to create boundaries and other plants of various forms, and textures to soften the edges. This provides both security and privacy to the users. Within the gardens, passive and active zones are also created to redirect the attention away from other distractions outside of the garden spaces.
One important aspect of therapeutic gardens is the opportunity for scheduled and programmed activities to take place. Hence, large shelters that can accommodate 10 to 12 people are included into the gardens. Besides allowing users to rest and socialise, the shelters also allow group activities, including therapeutic horticulture sessions to take place. Additionally, fitness equipment, some wheelchair-accessible are also incorporated into the garden to encourage physical exercise. This increases the awareness and frequency of the garden use with meaningful activities.
Therapeutic can also include sensory and reminiscence elements like in the dementia garden at a nursing home in Buangkok. Can you share more about these elements and how they will be represented in the garden?
In the design of therapeutic gardens using sensory stimulation, we curated the planting into the five sensory zones and a reminiscence zone:
Zone 1 – Smell: In the early stage of dementia where cognitive functions such as short-term memory lapses, long-term memory often stays intact. And studies have shown that smell is one of strongest sense that can trigger emotions and long-term memories. Hence, plants that are fragrant and familiar are introduced at the beginning. The faint scent of the Bread Flower (Vallaris glabra) greets the users at the entrance, while others like the Cape Jasmine (Gardenia jasminoides) and the Water Plum (Wrightia religiosa) enable them to remember their past memories relating to the smell.
Zone 2 – Hearing: Here a variety of grass-like plants that trigger a rustling sound in the wind, such as the Yellow Walking Iris (Trimezia steyermarkii) and Bamboo Orchid (Arundina graminifolia) are introduced. In addition, the dry seed pods of the Rattleweed Plant (Crotalaria retusa) can also be shaken to create a rattling sound, creating interest for the users as they interact with the plant. Wooden wind chimes and a large bamboo musical instrument are also introduced for some interactive sound experiences along the garden path.
Zone 3 – Reminiscence: Plants of cultural significance and those that are commonly grown in the olden days are showcased here. This includes Lotus (Nelumbo nucifera), Pomegranate (Punica granatum), Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis), Common Coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), and Pandan (Pandanus amaryllifolius). A wooden pushcart was also introduced to let the seniors relieve the old days of eating at roadside food stalls where street foods were sold. This zone also doubles as an event space where group activities can be conducted, including meal gatherings where food can be serving on the Sarabat stall.
Zone 4 – Taste: Immediately next to the reminiscence zone is the taste zone where edible plants such as vegetables, fruit trees, herb and spices are planted. The vegetable plots allow both the staff and residents to get physically involved in gardening activities, another good exercise to practice their physical skills, including fine and gross motor skills. Even for those who are unable to get involved in the physical activities, they can simply walk around this area, crushing, smelling and tasting the leaves of herbs, such as the Common Basil (Ocimum basilicum), Indian Borage (Coleus amboinicus), as well as the Common Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris).
Zone 5 – Touch: Continuing from the Taste Zone, the Touch Zone displays plants with leaves and stems of various tactile qualities from the leaves and stems. This can be found in the soft texture of the Firecracker Plant (Russelia equisetiformis), and the waxy leaves of the Ixora (Ixora spp.), and the interesting texture of the flower clusters of the Green Aralia (Osmoxylon lineare).
Zone 6 – Sight: The garden experience ends with the Sight Zone, culminating in a display of plant types that allow for an array of visual interest, such as the Rattlesnake Plant (Calathea crotalifera), the Red Powderpuff Plant (Calliandra haematocephala) and the Tropical Leaf-Flower (Phyllanthus pulcher). Here, other sensory features are reintroduced; the smell of flowers, the trickling sound of the water feature, the use of bright and warm colours to heighten the visual sense, and the tactile experience of walking on the lawn area.
Do you see more therapeutic projects coming up?
We are currently working on a hospitality project in Suzhou, China, where we are introducing some of the characteristics of therapeutic garden design into the landscaping scheme. Locally, we are working with schools and other senior care facilities to introduce therapeutic horticulture programming as part of their existing programmes. We also provide consultations on how to enhance existing gardens to incorporate aspects of therapeutic garden into them.
We are also heartened to know about NParks’ plan to establish 30 therapeutic gardens across Singapore by 2030, as part of their transformation for Singapore to be a “City in Nature”. This will allow more people to learn and appreciate the features found in therapeutic gardens, and how they contribute to the overall wellbeing of people.
Anything else you would like to add?
The concept of therapeutic garden in Singapore is relatively new compared to other developed countries. Current references to design guidelines for therapeutic gardens are based mainly on research and evidence gathered from other countries, whose culture and climate may vary from ours.
As part of our ongoing research on designing outdoor spaces for healing, we are currently working on a pilot therapeutic garden evaluation tool for seniors and those with dementia in Singapore. We will adapt best practices from both local and overseas sources in the field of therapeutic garden design, as well as senior and dementia care. We will be test-bedding a checklist on existing gardens or green spaces in various public parks, hospitals, nursing homes and senior care facilities in Singapore. Interested parties can write to firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a free evaluation session with us.
Over time, we hope more people will see the benefits of therapeutic gardens and therapeutic horticulture.
(** PHOTO CREDIT: Tham Xin Kai)