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The health-promoting benefits of nature at end of life

Author: Melanie Hodson
11 January 2018

Hosted in Ottawa, the fifth international Public Health and Palliative Care Conference featured more than 70 poster presentations describing a wide and fascinating array of public health projects taking place around the world. Here Melanie Hodson, Information Specialist at Hospice UK, highlights two of the posters which considered the impact of nature on wellbeing at the end of life.

Research has shown that gardening, or simply spending time surrounded by nature, can measurably reduce stress levels and improve wellbeing1. Social and therapeutic horticulture is (to pardon the pun) of growing interest in the UK (see for example this recent ehospice article on horticultural sessions at the Phyllis Tuckwell Hospice in Surrey, and further reflections on the value of garden space in this ehospice editorial from 2014).

With that in mind, and Gatineau Park, the Canadian capital city’s conservation and outdoor recreation park, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the conference centre in Ottawa, the poster presentations which discussed the impact of nature on palliative care were a great opportunity to reflect further on the value of natural resources to people approaching the end of life.

The comfort of parks

As the authors of the mixed method study “The place of parks and nature in palliative care” (presented at the conference by S. Jakubec) point out, “...agencies and disciplines are beginning to understand that health, quality of life and nature are significantly interrelated.” In setting out to “develop an understanding of the place of parks and natural places” for palliative care patients, carers and those close to them, respondents to the study’s survey reported that parks can provide physical, emotional and spiritual comfort.

The research was funded by the Government of Alberta in Canada and it has gone on to inform Alberta Parks’ policy around memorials and support for loss, bereavement and end of life care.

Encouraging resiliency

Being in Canada, a project about maple trees was certain to catch the eye – although this poster was about a health-promoting palliative care initiative from Australia. “The Bethlehem Maple Seedling Project” (presented by M. Hocking) told the story of how a flurry of maple tree seedlings growing in a hospital car park ‘provided an unexpected means of enhancing patient and family wellbeing at end of life. With the help of volunteers, 101 seedlings were salvaged from the car park and patients became involved in their care. As the author explains, for some patients this spontaneous project provided “a sense of purpose and occupation, for others it was a means of leaving a legacy” as a plant was bequeathed to a relative and so became a means of honouring a life.

The conference brochure provides a comprehensive list of the posters on display and other presentations from “Palliative care is public health; principles to practice” are available on the conference’s website.

Get involved

Public Health Palliative Care International (PHPCI) considers death, dying, loss and care to be everyone's responsibility. PHPCI seeks to promote practice learning, professional support, and facilitate local and international communication between members around the world in their individual attempts at embedding a public health approach to the practice of palliative care. The 6th Public Health Palliative Care International conference will be held in Sydney, Australia, in 2019.

For more information visit PHPCI

1See for example: Buck D. (2016) Gardens and health: implications for policy and practice. London: King’s Fund

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