On Mondays and Thursdays before the pandemic, I would look forward to visiting Emma. Emma lives in a care home and was bed-bound by this point. I would sit by her side and we would often enjoy looking through gardening books together. However, when the pandemic hit, I was unable to visit her. I was concerned about how I could reach out to Emma – how I could let her know that I was thinking of her.
Before being bed-bound, Emma was a very keen gardener. She got great enjoyment out of advising me on what to grow in my garden. It seemed very important to her – it was a way of feeling useful and gave her a sense of purpose. In psychology, purpose and meaning are cornerstones of happiness, optimal experience and a life well lived. Purpose creates opportunities! So, when coronavirus hit and I could no longer visit Emma, I decided to plant all the flowers she had previously advised me on. I would track their progress and send pictures by using an app called TouchNote. It is an app that can send postcards from the pictures that you take and has been useful during this difficult time.
I tracked my successes and failures in the garden. Initially, I was concerned about writing about my gardening fails, but I realised that this could also help Emma. It would create an opportunity for her to discuss with the carers what I was doing wrong, and maybe for her to think about how I could overcome a particular issue. Therefore, it would help her engage with life and feel productive. And it did seem to work. I have been writing twice a week across the pandemic, and Emma’s carers have given a lot of positive feedback.
As time went on, and progress was slow in my garden, I went on nature walks, capturing nature unfolding as we were heading into summer. I knew Emma would love to see the changing of the seasons. I logged the birds (blue tits are her favourite, so I was sure to include them) – the swallows in September preparing to migrate south, and the robins in winter.
I also included new information for mental stimulation. This is called errorless learning (EL) – a principle used to teach new information to people with cognitive impairment – and is known to have positive effects. EL involves learning without allowing any opportunities for mistakes, as mistakes can cause frustration. I knew that I should use something plant-related so that it would hold Emma’s interest. I wrote about new species of plants I had discovered and unusual flowers, like the most expensive and the rarest. I even found a rose with the same name as her. I learnt quite a bit myself!
Emma had told me in the past that she would have loved to visit the Chelsea Flower Show, so I sent pictures of the virtual Chelsea Flower Show that was put on last year. It was as close to fulfilling her wish as I could manage. Fulfilling a wish can enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy, so I was particularly pleased about that one.
The carers in the care home have been reading all the postcards to Emma and have put them in a book for her to look through. Apparently, she looks forward to receiving the pictures. When they arrive, they are a good talking point for her that day. Sometimes it is just nice to know that there is someone out there thinking of you and taking the time out of their day to send something of interest to you – feeling that type of connection is a vital psychological need.
I am thrilled to be able to say that I am visiting Emma next week. She has no family close by, so I am to be her one permitted visitor. I don’t expect to be able to pick up where I left off. Building the in-person relationship back up will be a slow process, but it is one that I am looking very much forward to.