Member of the garden group at work in the sensory garden
Anastasia Barnes image
Anastasia Barnes, OT

Anastasia Barnes, a senior occupational therapist at the Emerald Centre in Colchester, was the proud winner of the Cosyfeet OT Award 2018. The £1000 award helped to fund the creation of a sensory garden where dementia clients and their families spend quality time gardening and relaxing together.

In this article, she reports on the project and how the sensory garden has helped dementia patients form relationships, boost their confidence, learn new skills, become more physically active and engage in memory-promoting tasks.

We recently celebrated the official opening of a very special garden at the Emerald Centre. Clients and their families, supported by staff, worked very hard to create the sensory garden, which was officially opened by the Mayor of Colchester.

The Emerald Centre is part of the Essex Partnership University Trust and houses services for people with dementia. These services include initial memory assessments, consultant reviews, medication monitoring, crisis intervention assessments, home treatment, occupational therapy, psychological assessment/treatments and a 24-hour helpline. The centre also houses group therapies and activities, including cognitive stimulation therapy and a vascular well-being group.

An individual with dementia, whether the cause be from Alzheimer’s disease, vascular problems or any other brain injury, have in common a group of symptoms associated with an ongoing decline of the brain and its abilities, including thinking, memory, language, understanding and judgement.

Although the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease and is generally diagnosed in people over 70, there are individuals who have a diagnosis before the age of 65. This is referred to as early-onset dementia and can have a profound effect on the individual, their family and friends.

It is important that whatever age a person is diagnosed with any form of dementia, they continue to feel worthwhile, useful and understood.

With this in mind, when the opportunity arose, we decided to create a garden where people could enjoy being together in a creative way, using and maintaining the skills and creativity they might have, giving them a sense of purpose and pride.

The garden

Client with her painted ducks in the sensory garden

At the Emerald Centre, there is an enclosed garden area that was little used and only maintained by Trust gardeners to prevent overgrowth.

The project was started when a volunteer offered to decorate the four very large clay pots in the garden with mosaic tiles to add some colour. We decided to expand on this and invited our clients and carers to become involved in creating a sensory garden which would be a therapeutic space they could enjoy.

The garden project for our client group was designed to encourage and promote the following:

  • A sense of achievement
  • Building confidence/self-esteem
  • To boost energy levels and help with sleep difficulties
  • Working with others to promote social interaction and to reduce isolation
  • To create a sense of purpose alongside meaningful activity
  • Exercise to promote physical health and well-being as well as to help maintain mobility and flexibility
  • To help maintain skills and encourage memories
  • Enjoyment, pleasure and reminiscence
  • A place to share experiences and create new memories with their family and friends

It is well documented that gardening is beneficial for mental health and well-being. Studies have found that the mental health benefits of gardening are extensive, reducing problems such as anxiety and depression. It can also reduce stress, help combat high blood pressure and help improve overall physical fitness.

According to Ulrich (1999), being involved in garden activities can help improve memory and assist with maintaining rational thinking and cognitive function. The activities in the garden help to arouse the five senses of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Garden activities can also promote a feeling of calmness and reduce problems associated with dementia such as boredom, depression, aggression, agitation and increased stress.

Client paints a planter in the sensory garden

It was a huge undertaking and hard work to begin with. We were fortunate to have the help of a group of volunteers from the university and an enthusiastic group of Girl Guides to clear the space and ready the garden for our clients to begin their project.

Flyers were sent out to our clients and their families or carers informing of a start date for the group and requesting donations of old unused garden equipment or any spare plants.

We applied to the Trust for funding to enable us to purchase gardening tools and entered the Cosyfeet OT Award programme. We were overjoyed to win the Award, and the £1,000 award enabled us to purchase, paint, plants, arbours and seating.

The client group was divided into two, with the clients who wanted to work outside in the garden busy designing areas, painting benches, planting, weeding and generally creating the garden. The ‘inside’ group were busy creating artwork for the garden that included making bird boxes, painting pots and using household items to create various sculptures.

The project has grown since the opening and we now have a very well attended group who are enthusiastic, creative and motivated to continue developing ‘their’ space.

The project has proved to be an enormous success. We have observed the benefits first hand with our clients forming relationships, talking, laughing, being physically more active and best of all inviting their families and friends to enjoy the garden with them.

The Cosyfeet Occupational Therapy Award

The Cosyfeet Occupational Therapy Award supports one winner each year in developing their professional knowledge and skills while benefitting others. The £1000 award is open to any OT or OT student who is planning voluntary work, a work placement or research, whether in the UK or abroad. It is designed to contribute to travel and other expenses.

For more information, visit

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