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Woman gardening
July 22, 2022
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Summer Gardening Safety Tips for Older Adults

In the warmer months, people of all ages enjoy spending time outdoors working in the garden. Gardening can be much more than a fun hobby, providing significant benefits for the mind and body—especially as we get older. Gardening can help seniors maintain muscle strength and flexibility, is a great low-impact exercise and the sunshine and fresh air can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. While certain medical conditions or changes in mobility can make gardening more difficult with age, the right precautions can help older adults stay safe. Read on for important safety reminders if you’re gardening this summer.

Pace Yourself
Like any form of exercise, overdoing it in the garden can lead to injury. To protect your muscles and joints and to minimize future aches and pains, stretch before you start, take a break to stretch while you’re gardening, and again when you’re all finished. Spread tasks throughout the day, take regular breaks and aim to switch up what you’re doing every 15 minutes to avoid repetitive motions. Stop when you feel tired and always carry a cell phone with you around the yard in case of emergency.

Dress for Safety
Avoid gardening in flip-flops or gardening clogs—even for short sessions. Choose sturdy, closed-toed shoes for better traction and support and to prevent cuts or injuries to your feet. Always wear gardening gloves to protect your skin from blisters, irritations, insect bites and thorns. And if you have a chronic health condition like diabetes that can impact nerves and sensation, always check for cuts after gardening. Wear sunscreen and insect repellent on any exposed skin, as well as sunglasses and a large-brimmed hat. Long sleeves and pants in a breathable material—even on hot days—will also prevent sunburns and protect your body from pests including ticks.

Beat the Heat
High temperatures can cause serious illness in seniors, so aim to garden in the morning or late afternoon when it’s cooler. The signs of heat stroke include nausea, headache, dizziness, rapid pulse, confusion or unconsciousness. Be sure to seek help immediately if you experience any of these symptoms. Always carry a water bottle with you around the garden and drink from it regularly to prevent dehydration.

Get the Gear
Gardening can put extra stress on your joints, whether you’re kneeling for an extended period, lifting heavy loads or gripping garden tools. Kneeling pads, lightweight hoses and tools with larger grips or extended lengths are available to make gardening more comfortable. If you are experiencing vision loss, paint the handles of your existing tools a bright colour to make them easier to spot when dropped and so they don’t become a tripping hazard. If you are using motorized blowers and trimmers, consider using lighter-weight, battery-operated ones and swap your wheelbarrow for a garden cart with four wheels to safely maneuver across any terrain. When you’re finished gardening, put equipment and tools safely away and recoil your hose to reduce the risk of trips and falls.

Watch Your Movements
Always use your garden cart to move heavy items, but when you are lifting anything, be sure to bend at the knees, keep your back upright and let your legs do the work. If you’re kneeling, rather than placing both knees on the ground, keep one knee bent in front of you and the other one on the ground—alternating regularly. To avoid twisting and reaching motions, move directly in front of your work. Raised garden beds, container planters set on tables or beautiful window boxes can bring your gardening up to waist level if kneeling and stooping are no longer comfortable or feasible. Take regular note of any roots sticking up or uneven boards or stones on patios that can be tripping hazards.

Enlist Help
Though it can be hard to accept, you may not be able to do everything in the garden that you used to. Consider swapping out labour-intensive plants with more lower maintenance options moving forward. Hire out the tasks that are difficult or strenuous if you can and always save any jobs that require a ladder for professionals. Remember if something doesn’t feel safe, it’s probably not and is best to avoid. Ask family members for a little time helping in your garden instead of gifts or share gardening tasks with a neighbour so you can each enjoy an extra set of hands. As an added bonus, spending time with loved ones in the garden will be an instant mood boost and a great way to reconnect.

With a few simple precautions and adaptations, you can keep gardening safely all summer long. If you’re looking for more safe gardening strategies, or for any other activity you are having difficulty completing, an occupational therapist may be able to help. Contact VHA’s private services team at (416) 489-2500 ext. 4649 or by email at privateservices@vha.ca for more information.