August 31, 2011

Therapeutic Landscape Design for the Aging and Disabled


When you are designing any landscape, there are a few questions you can generally ask. What are the climatic conditions of the area you are designing in? What type of use will this landscape need to accommodate? Are there any areas that need to be protected or edges that need definition? And then, most importantly, who is your user group?

Knowing your target audience is as important in landscape design as it is in advertising. As beautiful as any design may be, it is not a success unless it is consumed and enjoyed by the audience. When designing a park that is to be mainly used by small children, you wouldn’t think of not including a playground, so when designing a space for an aged or disabled population, you should make sure you consider their needs along the same lines.

A therapeutic garden design in Idaho

Therapeutic Landscapes

Gardening has long been appreciated by many for its therapeutic properties. From prison landscapes to disabled veterans homes and assisted living quarters, therapeutic landscape designs consider the interaction with the landscape as a healing process. Therapeutic landscape design is design with a purpose, to engage the users of the space visually, emotionally and physically. When designing a therapeutic landscape, you may want to choose plants for their scent and touch like herbs and aromatics, or be sure to choose evergreens for there delight on the eye all year long. When you place benches or places to rest in the landscape, do so with thought of how the user will interact and be stimulated with the garden around them. Consider peaceful sounds like gravel under foot, wind chimes or soothing water features, and avoid bright lights and shadowy areas. Most importantly, design the space so that universal access is considered, including those in wheelchairs and walkers.

Access and Safety

The aged and disabled population may have limited mobility, loss of sight, smell, hearing, or be wheelchair-bound. When designing a landscape, do well to remember these potential restrictions, and consider the challenge. Make sure pathways are wide enough to accommodate two-way wheelchair traffic (7’) or at least wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair turning around (6’). Ramps should be a part of the landscape, at a proper rise to allow a gently slope. Doorways and trestles should have comfortable landing areas. And of course, all hardscaping should be smooth enough so that those with shuffling feet could not trip or slip in the rain. Handrails and edging are suggested for those with limited visual ability, as are Braille signs and larger font styles for the aging eye.

For garden beds, which give great joy to those with limited mobility, remember the needs of those who cannot bend or get out of a chair. Raised garden beds and container planters, as well as vertical wall gardens and hanging planters, should work well and be easy to reach. Avoid placing vegetable gardens at ground level and use hoops rather than stakes, which are difficult for arthritic fingers to tie. And remember to raise faucets and hoses, for those who may want to tend a garden themselves.
Design Considerations

Water features are soothing to the ear and visually stimulating

In addition to plants, heights, and pathways, there are other elements that you may want to add into your landscape design. As mentioned before, water features make great additions to therapeutic gardens for their touch, sound and cooling feel. Touchable sculptures and trellises are also a great addition, as they invite the user to touch and feel alternating textures. For these, consider using cast concrete or resin, as the oil from many hands can wear away metals and stone.


Healthy Maintenance

As with any landscape for those with compromised immune systems, try to use organic fertilizers and pest inhibitors, and low impact maintenance techniques. Chemical lawn treatments and pesticide applications may be harmful to the elderly and sick.

More Information

There are many great publications and books on therapeutic garden design out there, but here are some of our favorite links:

The Healing Landscapes Network:

Chicago Botanical Garden Therapy Training (National leader):

Accessible Gardening (UniversityofMinnesota):

Wiki on Therapeutic Gardening:

–By Tabitha Harkin, ASLA, MLA








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