Growing calm in Japanese gardens
RUTGERS (US)—Japanese gardens appear to offer tangible relief to late-stage Alzheimer’s patients and other vulnerable populations, new research shows.
Seiko Goto, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers, says that in a preliminary trial, after brief periods of sitting in a Japanese garden, Alzheimer’s patients experienced reduced stress and enhanced well-being.
“Japanese gardens can be very small and installed indoors,” says Goto. “They can be put in anywhere at low cost. If they reduce stress, this could mean lower healthcare costs, less medicine, and fewer calls to the nurse. This could have huge implications.”
Goto and Karl Herrup, professor and chair of cell biology and neuroscience, surveyed residents at the Medford Leas Continuing Care Community in Medford, N.J. The facility has a series of courtyards with 32 gardens, and residents were asked which they preferred.
“The Japanese gardens scored highest. The herb gardens scored lowest,” says Goto. “Japanese gardens significantly reduced stress. We confirmed this with a heart-rate test comparing the Japanese garden, the herb garden, and an unstructured space with a single tree.”
Why the difference? In short, the subtle nature of the herb garden wasn’t appealing to older people, who typically have poorer vision.
“People who didn’t like the herb garden said it was ‘weedy,’ Goto explains. “A Japanese garden has a viewpoint, shade and sun, and a meandering, natural flow for the eye.”
Goto recently created a small Japanese garden in a room at one end of the Alzheimer unit at the Francis E. Parker Memorial Home and introduced several residents to the garden during 15-minute sittings twice a week. In these brief exposures, “interesting things happened,” Goto reports.
“Many of these patients don’t know who they are,” she explains. “Many get confused at a certain time of day. Yet immediately upon being in the garden they calmed down, even if they were in the midst of screaming.
“They smiled and stayed calm for the rest of the day. The doctor said this was more effective than medications that can take time to work and leave patients listless.”
One seemingly minor event in particular caught the attention of Herrup, whose research specialty is the biology of nerve cell loss during certain degenerative illnesses. At one point during the testing, there was a cricket singing in a chrysanthemum plant. Ten days passed before the next garden visit. Yet when they returned to the garden, two of the four patients who had heard the chirping asked: “Where is the cricket?”
“That these people could associate the cricket with the garden after one brief exposure—and retained this association for ten days—basically gave me goose bumps,” Herrup says.
“The caveat is that in a rigorous sense, this has to be recognized as anecdotal, qualitative data. For right now, however, the results are a strong incentive for us to keep going.”
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