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How to make your garden more accessible to the elderly

In CategoryTim Whitcombe
ByGardenAdvice Tim Whitcombe

Britain is an ageing population, according to the Office for National Statistics. By 2039, one in every 12 of us will be aged over 80, and one in three babies born in 2013 are expected to reach 100 years of age.

While this older generation has longevity to look forward to, aging also reduces mobility and can often bring impairments. With this outlook, it’s important for everyone to consider how accessible their home is to older people – whether it’s for family or to safeguard your home for your own aging process.

The garden is one of the home’s most rewarding areas. It’s a space to relax, cultivate or have guests over for summer parties – but as you age, it often becomes a point of pride as many get into the hobby of gardening.

However, it can also then become a hazard as you advance in age. In 2007, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) released figures that showed there were 115,000 garden falls, slips and trips reported a year. Whether you’re future-proofing your garden against your own aging, or making your garden as accessible as possible for elderly guests, here’s how to do it:

Raised Beds

A common complaint for elderly gardeners is the accessibility of the growth areas. For wheelchair users a raised bed, which is between 18-24 inches high, is perfect. For those standing, building a larger planter that is around 30-36 inches high eliminates the need to bend down. If planning for wheelchair access, you’ll need pathways that are at least 3-4ft (91-121cm) wide. They should have enough room on all sides so that gardeners can reach the centre.

Resting areas

Place resting areas around a garden space to provide either yourself or elderly visitors with places to relax. In smaller gardens, this could be a bench or two. In larger areas with more planters and flowerbeds, you could add stools, or kneeling areas to allow elderly people to work on flowerbeds.

Pathways

Pathways between grassed areas or planters should be flat but slightly rough so that they offer non-slip properties. Flagstones and slabs are good options, but best laid with a slight slope or close butted to allow water to run off. Tarmac and concrete are both cost-effective and low maintenance, but aren’t visually attractive for a garden. Avoid cobbles, as they can be trip hazards for all ages. Replace any steps with non-slip ramps where possible, supported by handrails.

Decking

For residential gardens, a decking area provides a stable platform for elderly people to relax on. Decking is low maintenance, stable and if you install certain types of decking such as enhanced grip boards, which minimise the risk of slipping, they’re perfect for creating a ‘living space’ in a garden. Low-slip decking can help reduce the risk of slipping, which is the leading form of accident for all age groups in gardens.

The railings of decking also provide a stable platform for elderly people to use as balance or grab rails – but you must ensure a skilled installer builds your deck so your railings are stable.

Another positive way to use decking is to deck entire areas and add planters and flower boxes to them, so elderly gardeners can garden either from wheelchairs or with minimal effort – cutting down the time needed to grow plants without the effort required to maintain fully grassed areas.

Handrails

Handrails are an essential part of any elderly garden. They should be placed, at a minimum, near any changes in level, steps or ramps. They should extend to 850mm above step nosing or ramp surfaces and should also be at least 1m over landing. Generally, rails are most comfortable when they’re not too narrow or wide to allow better grip. 45-50mm is a rough rule of thumb for their circumference.

Plants

While gardening can be dangerous for the elderly, it’s important to remember that the benefits are impressive – from improved mental health to mobility and fitness. For that reason, you can’t rid a garden of the flowers and plants in the name of safety. Instead, strike a balance between beauty and safety by using hardy plants that can withstand the seasons with very little maintenance.

With some careful planning, a garden space can become an accessible place – whether it’s to help you get around more easily as you age or to allow elderly guests better access, making the changes now will put you in good stead as Britain’s population grows increasingly older.

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