Potted History

Promoting better mental and physical health among older people through the great outdoors

The charity London Wildlife Trust works with diverse communities across the city to give people access to nature and wildlife. Its Potted History project aims to promote better mental and physical health among older people by facilitating access to the great outdoors through a range of nature-based activities.

Thanks to your donations and a £9,921 Maudsley Charity grant, groups and events have been established at seven South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) sites, where patients and carers can get outside and reconnect with nature.

Setting up the project

The SLaM Potted History project got off the ground in March 2017. London Wildlife Trust Project Officer Joanna Ecclestone, who’s trained in horticultural therapy and reminiscence, leads the project across several SLaM sites, with the support of several dedicated volunteers.

At inpatient wards at the Maudsley, Bethlem and Lewisham hospitals, elderly patients can take part in gardening and art and craft activities over a six-week period.

The Potted History team and staff at SLaM have used raised beds outside the AL1 ward’s lounge at the Maudsley to plant tomatoes, squash, courgettes, radishes and beans.

Occupational Therapist Oliver Martin says, ‘Patients take it on themselves to look after the garden and it encourages a sense of responsibility.’

Stimulating all the senses

But Potted History isn’t just about growing things. Joanna offers a wide range of nature-related activities designed to stimulate all the senses, including experiencing herbs through their smell. One patient was prompted to recall his boyhood growing up in rural Italy by the powerful aroma of thyme.

Making lavender bags is another popular pastime and again the scent can evoke powerful memories – particularly among the women. Pressing flowers is a great indoor activity when the weather is less than kind and the group has displayed its work for everyone to enjoy.

‘The focus on nature means there is more opportunity for people to connect with the activities,” Oliver points out. ‘There are more dimensions and opportunities to engage.’

One patient, Dimitri*, was a successful chef, and he enjoyed creating feeding balls to attract birds to the garden. He says, ‘Mixing the suet and seeds reminds me of making Christmas pudding and turkey stuffing!’

Quizzes to keep patients alert

As well as gentle physical activity, Joanna has developed quizzes to keep participants mentally alert. Using pictures of birds as prompts, she encourages the group to talk about bird they know of. She then asks them to complete common phrases featuring birds. The relaxed environment and support from the volunteers means people are quick to shout out the answers – ‘ruffling feathers’, ‘water off a duck’s back’ and ‘eagle eyed’.

Joanna says,’ Cognitive stimulation offers new ideas, learning and creative challenges, which help in preventing or and alleviating depression.’

She points out that it’s important for people to take part at their own pace. Daisy initially just came to observe, but over four sessions she has tentatively started to engage with the group’s activities, along with the support of the SLaM team.

‘The sessions are free-flowing – people come and go,’ says Joanna. ‘Some take part and stay for the whole session. Others just like to come and look.  Because some people on the ward are at crisis point, a formal structured activity is not always appropriate.’

Wildlife in the garden

The Potted History project at SLaM also offers ‘Wildlife in the garden’ days for outpatients with mental health difficulties at Heavers Court Care Home in Croydon and the Granville Park Adult Education Centre in Lewisham.

Joanna says, ‘The half-day sessions aim to create a garden party atmosphere in the grounds.’

One-off sessions are also given to advanced dementia patients and their carers at the Ann Moss Specialist Care Unit in Rotherhithe and the Greenvale Specialist Care Unit for Older Adults in Streatham.

Making progress

All the patients at the Maudsley group say they enjoy being outside, the social interaction and taking part in the different activities.

The SLaM staff and Potted History team have noticed improvements among participants too. Joanna explains, ‘Examples include people becoming more communicative and people focusing longer on an activity through the course of a session.’

She adds, ‘Good group dynamics create a positive and sociable time for people to forget other worries and focus on doing something meaningful.’

Over the project’s nine-month lifespan, the Potted History team shared their passion for nature with about 90 elderly people across the different centres.

*Names have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.