But this was the challenge which a pair of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH) practitioners rose to at a Bristol allotment.
Guy Manchester and colleague Abi Sweet work for the charity Alive which helps enrich the lives of older people and their carers.
They were approached to create a dementia-friendly allotment in north Bristol but two weeks after starting work, the first lockdown began.
With help from colleagues and weekly visits, the site was transformed into a cultivatable state and by the end of the year a successful crowdfunding campaign meant there was a compostable toilet too, which propelled work on making the plot a safe and engaging space for people living with dementia.
But as many STH practitioners who have experience of starting a growing space will testify, the work required was not for the faint-hearted.
‘I dread to think how many hours went into it,’ said Guy. ‘Abi and I were pulling regular 50-hour weeks to try to ensure we were ready to open before summer ended.’
August 2021 saw the first session start and there are now two running each week, plus one inter-generational one for home-schooled children and older people.
Reaction from people with dementia and their carers to the new service has been ‘phenomenal’, said Guy.
He told of one man who hadn’t walked without his stick for three weeks, but within minutes of arriving at the allotment he was walking around watering quite happily without it. His wife said before coming to the allotment he’d been agitated and unsettled following a hospital stay. Towards the end of the session though, he was sat down, clearly relaxed and looking around with the most serene look on his face, taking it all in.
Another woman hadn’t been out of her wheelchair for two weeks, but when she arrived she used a walker to have a tour of the allotment. She said, ‘I love it here, it's so open and makes me feel at peace and relaxed.’ She’d never gardened in her life but insisted her daughter drive her home via the garden centre to buy a fuchsia.
For the wife of a man who had to give up his own allotment after 20 years as his dementia advanced, coming to the project brought noticeable change: ‘I get to see the old John when I’m here,’ his wife said. ‘He’s so happy and enjoys it so much. All we do when we’re at home is argue, but here it’s like in the old days.’
Guy and Abi, who previously had experience of working with people living with dementia in care homes, are positive about how the allotment is helping people: ‘People transform when they come to the allotment; physically, cognitively and in terms of their mood,’ said Guy.
Not resting on their laurels, the pair are planning to run a pilot session for people with early-onset dementia next spring.
Guy said, ‘It's a demographic who often miss out on organised activities as most target older people. We've done some consulting with a local YOD support group and there seems to be a lot of interest. If the pilot goes well, we'll look into getting some funding to make it a permanent fixture.’
Looking back on what’s been achieved, Guy added: ‘If we had known quite how much work was going to be involved in creating the allotment, we would have given up before we started!
‘However, it has been so heart-warming seeing how it's already enriched the lives of so many people, so much so that I think we'd do it again in a heartbeat. I don’t think in our wildest dreams we could have imagined making such a marked and immediate positive impact on so many people’s lives.
‘It really is a fervent testament to the power of gardening and being outdoors surrounded by like-minded people.’
* The Alive project is looking for more volunteers. Interested? Contact 07379 498 764 or email email@example.com