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Houseplants increase quality of life for retirement community residents

02.03.2009
Caring for plants increases physical and emotional health

As the U.S. population ages, the number of citizens moving from their own homes to assisted living or long-term-care facilities is increasing dramatically. These numbers are expected to continue rising.

By 2030, the population aged 65 years and older is expected to double to more than 71 million. Quality of life becomes an important issue for older adults who will reside in retirement facilities.

An article published in the American Society for Horticultural Science journal HortTechnology examines the impact of indoor gardening in regards to quality of life in assisted-living facilities. The results of the study, conducted by Claudia C. Collins and Angela M. O'Callaghan, find that an activity as simple as caring for a houseplant can have very positive effects on a resident's happiness.

The study measured three attributes: mastery, self-rated health, and self-rated happiness. Mastery was defined as the belief that one's actions and choices determine outcomes in life. Often, when adults make the transition from living on their own to an assisted-living or long-term-care facility, they begin to feel a loss of control in their choices and independence. This loss of mastery has a negative impact on their overall sense of health and well-being. Mastery and self-rated health have been found to be two of the most accurate predictors of the social concept of "successful aging", a concept defined as high mental and physical functioning and active engagement with life.

One known way to improve the physical or emotional status of people who have diminished control over their lives is by encouraging them to take responsibility for another individual. This "other individual" may be a person, animal, or plant.

The 4-week study involved participation by 18 residents in a weekly, 2-hour interactive horticulture class taught by a social horticulturist and a sociologist. The residents were given interactive lessons on the care of houseplants, choices of what plants to bring home and care for, and different options in potting containers. The classes also offered residents an opportunity for social interaction with peers and instructors.

Over the course of the study, the teachers were impressed by the transformation of the overall demeanor of the students. They changed from a state of passive, lonely dependence to being more active, socially connected, and responsible for something other than themselves, demonstrating improvement in quality of life and mastery.

Several key categories emerged over the course of the study that illustrated areas of improvement in the resident's quality of life. First, caring for their houseplants provided companionship for the residents, some of whom reported singing and talking to their plants. Second, caring for the plants encouraged active and energetic participation. The researchers reported that "the overall energy was positive and electric as everyone involved could not wait to see how their plants would fare", adding that study participants "got dirty hands, dirt on their clothes, and felt competent."

Other positive impacts noted were a general feeling of success and accomplishment. Residents also showed excitement in planning for the future, and looked forward to being involved in developing an outdoor community garden.

Results of this study suggest that a horticulture intervention such as personal plant responsibility may be beneficial over a period of time. The researchers suggested that similar short-term horticultural activities could be used to help integrate new residents into assisted living, making it feel like their new home, as opposed to being "in a home". Future research will assess longer-term impacts as students from this class transition into the core group for ongoing development of an outdoor healing garden at the site.

Michael W. Neff | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.ashs.org
http://horttech.ashspublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/18/4/611

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