On a crisp, bright morning, Bob Newell, 77, from Wokingham, Berkshire, plucks a sprig of rosemary from a pot, smiles, and says it reminds him of roast lamb. Memories are precious to the retired metallurgist; he had Alzheimer's diagnosed ten years ago.
He is walking through a kitchen garden on a country estate just outside Reading, but this is a garden with a difference, one that is designed to evoke fond memories. It is decorated with wind chimes, water features and old-fashioned washing lines.
The garden is part of a network of plots and farmland at the charity Thrive, an organisation that promotes therapeutic gardening at its headquarters, set in 130 acres. It aims to improve wellbeing and independence in dementia sufferers by engaging them in horticulture.
Thrive takes about ten people a day. They do everything from planting seedlings in the glasshouse, to working on their individual plots of ground, in which they can grow whatever they like, from hollyhock and sweet peas to lavender and potatoes. Newell started attending the Thrive project five years ago after a family friend recommended it, knowing that he was a keen gardener.
Val, Newell's wife, says they couldn't have imagined how positive the experience would be: “We've never looked back. It has done wonders and came just at the right time.” Alzheimer's is a cruel disease, slowly eating away at personalities and stealing independence. Val believes that the gardening project has helped Bob to hold on to his sense of self. When someone loses so much, finding something that they can do, and enjoy, means an awful lot,” she says.
Nicola Carruthers, the chief executive of Thrive, says that the simple act of planting, nurturing and growing a plant can be surprisingly empowering to someone who is struggling with dementia. “It's all about ownership. It's so you can say that's mine; that's what I worked on. The disease causes a massive sense of isolation. As people decline, they lose themselves. They may have previously been high-fliers, but after the diagnosis people start talking to the person next to them, not to them directly,” Carruthers says.