For the last two years I have volunteered as a “garden partner” through Age UK in South London. This is a local scheme where you’re matched with a neighbour, usually an elderly person, to visit them each week and tend to their garden. There are obvious direct benefits for the garden owner, from the delight of seeing order returned to their outside space to the exercise from accompanying you onto the lawn to prune the roses and dead head the shrubs together. In the time I’ve been volunteering, I’ve seen a marked improvement in both my neighbour’s physical and mental health.
But this is only part of the story. I know from speaking to my own grandparents that they value their independence and are too proud to ask for someone to occasionally check in on them. This is where the garden partner scheme is so clever. It acts as a Trojan horse to get in the door. Once you’re in and have built a relationship, you’re able to help in so many other ways other than with the garden, doing things which in many cases elderly people would be uncomfortable, or unwilling, to ask for. I’ve collected prescriptions, cleared the fridge, compared chicken casserole recipes and posted Christmas cards, amongst a host of other tasks. In fact, whenever I visit, the gardening now only makes up a small proportion of the time we spend together.
One might even call this a form of ‘innovative social care’: providing services through community engagement in a way that elderly people feel comfortable with, which can vary over time and allows them to stay independent for longer and at lower cost.
Unfortunately, in April 2014 the local CCG stopped funding the garden partner’s scheme as they considered it more a social than health-related activity. I believe this is short-sighted, particularly when you consider the current cost pressures on providing healthcare for the elderly and recent studies that show schemes like this can save the NHS up to £11,000 per year.
The scheme has recently re-launched but garden owners are now charged to be matched with a partner. I’m keeping an eye on whether elderly people, who traditionally don’t like asking for help, are willing to pay for a gardening service when they probably don’t anticipate the other benefits the scheme brings.
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