The first therapeutic garden in a public park, which comes with specially chosen blooms and water features to uplift the senses, was launched at HortPark yesterday.
Backed by research, the garden is designed to improve the mental well-being of visitors, especially the elderly who have dementia, depression or stroke-linked conditions.
Two more of such gardens are coming up in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park and Tiong Bahru Park.
Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee, who opened the garden yesterday, said there are plans to build an islandwide network of therapeutic gardens in parks here, given the ageing population.
Providing such a network is an initiative under the Action Plan for Successful Ageing report announced by the Ministerial Committee on Ageing last year.
Study on gardens' impact on elderly
While those with green fingers know the calming influence of being in the yard, not much is known about the actual benefits of parks and gardening on the mental health of the elderly.
The first such study here has found that older people who engage in outdoor and indoor gardening and visit parks scored higher for psychological well-being, life satisfaction and social connectedness.
In particular, participants in the horticultural therapy group have lower levels of the proteins linked to depression.
A higher percentage of those in the group also saw improvement in visuospatial skills, memory and verbal fluency, compared with the control group.
"There is no evidence- based data as yet; people say, well, they like to visit gardens because they are nice places, but what is it that affects the human mind? What changes the human mind and the immune mechanism in the human body? That is what the research is all about," said Professor Kua Ee Heok from the National University Healthcare System (NUHS).
The preliminary findings were from an ongoing study by NUHS and the National Parks Board (NParks), which studied 69 senior citizens living in Jurong.
The mental health of participants was measured at the start of the study as well as three and six months after horticultural therapy commenced.
The study started last year and will be completed by the end of this year.
It complements a separate Parks Prescription study, also undertaken to better understand and quantify the benefits of greenery.
That study seeks to find out if more physical activity and park use among Singaporeans aged 40 to 65 results in any improvement in their physical and mental well-being.
The study, jointly conducted by NParks, National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health and Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, is due to conclude by 2018.
"The number of seniors older than 65 will more than double by 2030 and our parks can play a big role in realising our vision to be a nation for all ages where seniors can live actively and age in place confidently," said Mr Lee.
Research here (see sidebar) and elsewhere has found that being in contact with nature improves one's mental well-being.
The therapeutic garden at HortPark, off Alexandra Road, was developed in consultation with mental health expert Prof Kua Ee Heok of the National University Healthcare System and based on research in environmental psychology.
The garden spans 850 sq m and costs about $250,000, including programming expenses.
It has a restorative zone that provides respite and a rehabilitative environment. The zone has four sections, each designed to stimulate the sense of hearing, sight, touch and smell. The sounds section, for instance, is filled with water features and a bar chime to create natural melodies that soothe and calm.
The activities zone has customised facilities for the elderly and wheelchair users to participate in gardening and outdoor activities.
As elderly folk with dementia sometimes get sunburnt because they do not realise when they have been in the sun for too long, shaded areas have been provided for them to do gardening. Benches used to put the plants are equipped with wheels so that they can be wheeled out into the sun.
"We find that greenery and nature helps the elderly reminisce about their past as many grew up in kampungs," said Mr Stephen Chan, centre manager and occupational therapist at the Alzheimer's Disease Association (ADA). "It also maintains their cognitive ability and emotional well-being for a longer time so that they, in turn, display less challenging behaviour."
One of the first senior citizens to visit the therapeutic garden was Madam Soh Moh Chun, 83, a client of the ADA. She was there yesterday to do some gardening - which she has not done in years after being diagnosed with dementia.
She eased her way to a height-adjusted table for wheelchair-users and felt once more the warm soil sifting through her fingers as she potted a bunch of basil plants.
The smell of plants can also evoke memories for the elderly, as smell is one of the last senses to fade.
As the sweet scent of gardenia and ylang ylang flowers wafted over, Madam Soh said in Cantonese: "I am happy to be outdoors and to see the beautiful flowers."