For centuries, churches have served as both galleries and healing centres. Perhaps the therapeutic value we have so long invested in works of art has seemed too self-evident to require further investigation.
Recent studies have investigated the value of sculptures for difficult conditions such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Professor Carolyn Mair, a fellow of the British Psychological Society, coordinator of the wellbeing research hub at the London University of the Arts and publisher of a paper promoting investigation of the cognitive benefits of sculptures in garden settings, explained: “A large literature supports the restorative effects of nature and art with healthy and AD populations. However, few studies have considered the interaction of being in nature and experiencing art work … the generally positive outcomes of such interventions could be fruitfully combined.”
Hospitals and retirement complexes are investing in their gardens
Gardens have shown clear benefits, improving patient behaviour, reducing the need for medication, relieving stressed staff and increasing incentives for family visits. Gardens for dementia sufferers in the US have won awards, including the Portland Memory Garden in Oregon and the Living Garden at the Family Life Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Organisations such as Outdoor Environments for People with Dementia consider the need for relationships with nature to be genetically based and promote research to help architects design them for long-term care residents.
Scientific American reports that although middle-aged people associate gardens with peace and quiet, the elderly seek stimulation in them. Roger Ulrich of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University agrees that patients need to touch and interact with features taking natural forms. These focal points also help to orientate patients in space – a constant cause of stress for dementia sufferers. Flower displays are not perennial; therefore, Ulrich recommends sculptures, perhaps by bronze animal sculpturers, and architectural features.
A famous example of sculpture in a therapeutic setting is the Bethesda Angel in Minnesota, illustrating a biblical story of a healing pool; however, naturalistic art works best and abstract art the least. The creations of bronze animal sculpturers serve as points of common interest for both patients and their grandchildren, encouraging the formation of new memories and relationships.
Gardens must be easy to navigate, with flower beds raised to wheelchair height and layouts that foster a firm sense of location and familiarity.