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Full doesn’t adequately describe the life that Nicholas Barley enjoyed two years ago.

The former model was running a successful building restoration business in London that employed 20 people and enjoyed travelling the world and having an active social life.

But on the 27 April 2017, the day after his 56th birthday, everything changed in a matter of seconds.

In the middle of an AA meeting he realised he couldn’t move: 'Someone grabbed hold of me, so I didn’t fall over and then said I'd had a stroke. It was out of the blue and horrible,’ says Nicholas.

An ambulance arrived quickly and Nicholas was getting treatment at a specialist stroke hospital within 45 minutes; that speedy response probably saved his life.

Rehab

Nicholas can’t remember much about what happened next but recalls lying in bed, unable to eat, speak or walk, but he could hear and remembers a consultant telling his daughter and a close friend that there was no hope.

`I thought "No way, we’ll see what happens mate",’ says Nicholas and it was that determination to get better that set him on a long and arduous path towards partial recovery.

Nicholas emerged from a lengthy stint in rehab unable to use his right arm, but able to speak and walk, albeit with some limitations. He received help from the Stroke Association who also made him aware of what Thrive could offer through Social and Therapeutic Horticulture (STH).

Socially, however, he wasn’t in a good place. Depression had always been a problem and the stroke had also affected his confidence.

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Nicholas enjoying the fragrance of flowers in Thrive's Battersea Park gardens

Scary

Nicholas took part in a specialised 12-week stroke programme that uses gardening to support rehabilitation through tasks aimed at improving fine motor skills and dexterity, while strengthening limbs.

`Initially coming here was scary and really hard work because I was very withdrawn. But the lady that ran the course didn’t place any expectations on me which was great.’

Nicholas admits it took a while to become part of the group, but the friendly welcome and encouragement of fellow client gardeners, staff and volunteers made a real difference:

`They’ve helped me a massive amount. There is a huge community here, people in the office and in the groups have been great,’ says Nicholas, who now volunteers at Thrive once a week selling plants to the public where he enjoys talking to Battersea Park’s diverse visitors and being tested on his plant knowledge.

I rate the work of the staff here very highly because of their skills. To get a person to open up and talk is pretty massive. Everyone is here to help.

Nicholas

Reflecting on his Thrive experience, Nicholas said: 'The hard work has paid off, but I don’t notice it as much as other people who say "Nicholas, look how far you have come".

'Mentally it is a continual challenge, but I wouldn’t stop it, no way. I’ve made very good friends here so I’m a happy customer.

'I rate the work of the staff here very highly because of their skills. To get a person to open up and talk is pretty massive. Everyone is here to help.’

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Nicholas at the Thrive London plant kiosk

The value of social contact

Nicholas' experience of STH is not unique. A review of nature-based interventions for mental health care by Natural England found they can help increase social contact and a sense of belonging.

When more than 300 people aged over-50 took part in a Thrive gardening project, 86 per cent of them said afterwards they felt less isolated and socialised more, while 76 per cent said they had become more engaged in their local community.

And Thrive's 40 years experience in delivering STH has shown that therapeutic gardening projects for those with learning disabilities and poor mental health can counteract social isolation.

Ready to help

If you'd like to find out how Thrive could help you, or someone you know, overcome loneliness, do get in touch. If we can't help directly via our regional centres, we will try and connect you with other providers across the country who can.

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