Across the UK, Headway groups and branches run gardening projects that help to reduce depression, improve self-esteem and provide brain injury survivors with vital peer support and companionship.
Our press officer Charlotte Jones visited Headway Derby’s allotment to find out how gardening is helping the group’s members to rebuild their lives after brain injury.
When I arrive at the allotment it’s a scorching 25 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. Despite being situated right next to a main road, the traffic is barely audible and my ears are filled with the sound of birdsong.
Baby sparrows peek their yellow beaks out of a nearby bird box, as mum and dad flit back and forth with tasty grubs. Towering foxgloves sway in the breeze as busy bees buzz in and out of their tubular petals. The stress of my roadwork-riddled journey quickly fades from my mind and a wave of calm comes over me.
While the rest of the members have a drink, I take a stroll around the allotment with Joe Coleman, 72. He tells me he has always been a keen gardener and started attending Headway Derby’s allotment after sustaining a brain injury in 2007.
The father-of-two was in the driving seat of the family car, alongside his two teenage sons and their two friends when he suffered not one but two simultaneous ruptured aneurysms. Thankfully the car was stationary and one of his sons was able to remove the keys from the ignition.
As a result of his injury, Joe had to give up his career as a carpenter and, like many brain injury survivors, his social circle also fell away.
“After my accident I met up with people less often,” he said. “You get so used to chatting at work. It was a big part of my life, talking to people about day-to-day happenings. I lost all of that.”
As he began to recover, one of Joe’s support workers who had heard about Headway Derby’s new allotment encouraged him to go along.
Joe never looked back and over the past 11 years, he has made some lifelong friends.
“I’ve met so many lovely people since I started coming here,” he said. “I enjoy meeting other survivors and listening to the stories they tell.
“Sadly, some of them have now since passed away, but this place is full of memories. I look around and think back over days gone by and the people who came here. I’ve made some great friends.”
When I rejoin the others, service user Richard Brooks, 67, is waiting eagerly with some photo albums.
After being hit by a car in 1989, Richard sustained a brain injury that resulted in severe memory loss.
“My memory has only started coming back to me in the past fi ve years or so,” said Richard. “That’s 25 years without being able to remember any of my childhood.
“Many years after my accident, I started taking photographs around Repton in Derbyshire, which is where I grew up. I found it helped me to regain memories of my family and my childhood.”
These days Richard enjoys taking photos of Headway Derby’s allotment and the wildlife it supports.
“I struggle with motivation and I need a project to work on,” he said. “So I set myself a goal to take photos of the allotment each month, to show how it changes throughout the seasons.
“I suffer from bouts of depression where I am housebound. But when I do come to the allotment I feel helpful, I get to socialise and get some fresh air.
“Even though I have to rest for the next couple of days because of the fatigue, I leave the allotment feeling so much better because I’ve done something productive.”
Joe and Richard have both come a long way since the allotment began, something volunteer Ruth Wright knows only too well.
Ruth joined Headway Derby as a paid member of staff in 2006, the year the allotment began. But in 2016, funding for the project ceased and Ruth took voluntary redundancy.
Ruth couldn’t face abandoning the allotment and the next week she was back, this time as a volunteer. Her dedication led to her being named as a Volunteer of the Year finalist in the Headway Annual Awards in 2016.
Ruth has been instrumental in making sure both the allotment, and service users who attend it, continue to thrive.
“I couldn’t just walk away,” she said. “Here was a group of people who didn’t want to lose their contact with Headway Derby.
“For some, the draw is getting their hands dirty with the physical aspect of the gardening; for others the real benefit comes from socialising in a peaceful outdoor setting.
“It’s a relaxing place, with a real sense of friendship and community. I love it here.”
Brain injury rehabilitation is often seen in one-dimensional terms, often focusing on the early stages following injury. But it’s clear that gardening, in a similar way to other creative activities such as art and music, can provide very real benefits to those living with the long-term effects of brain injury, helping to reduce social isolation, improve confidence and develop skills.
Many Headway groups and branches across the UK provide gardening projects as part of their service provision. Here’s just a small selection of the green-fingered activities on offer...
Adam Bailey is a former service user at Headway Cambridgeshire who now volunteers at the group’s gardening project called Growing Together.
“Before I took part in the gardening project I was finding it hard to contain my emotions and express myself properly,” said Adam. “I was liable to blow a fuse if things got too much for me.
“Now I have much more confidence to approach people and talk to them. I am no longer so anxious about making a mistake or blundering in.”
Thrive is a charity that uses gardening to bring about positive changes in the lives of people living with disabilities or ill health.
Having visited its Reading base with other service users at Headway Thames Valley, Rob Black said he was left motivated to do more gardening.
“The best part of the day was potting-up our own plants and taking them home,” he said. “I’ve put mine in my garden and am watering them daily now.
“It was very inspiring and has made me want to get out in the garden more. The staff were very helpful and it was interesting to find out about the different plants.”
Getting active is one of the main benefits for brain injury survivor Robert Fraser, who regularly visits Headway North Lanarkshire’s allotment.
“Being involved in the allotment has allowed me to get more active and meet new friends,” said Robert. “I planted different vegetables and poppies, then watered them every day. They’re doing well.”
Headway Cardiff and South East Wales has a small garden plot at its Independence and Wellbeing Centre, which is based in Rookwood Hospital.
“We really enjoy the project because it gets us working as a team,” said service user Christopher Jones.
“It makes us feel good about ourselves because it isn’t just Headway members who can enjoy the garden; the rest of the hospital can come and look around the area and see our hard work.”
Helen Mapp, Chief Executive of Herefordshire Headway, says its gardening project is the most popular of all the activities run by the charity.
“When we ask our members about what they’ve gained from the gardening group there are several themes that come up repeatedly.
“They tell us they have gained the confidence and skills to tend to their garden at home again. They like the fact it gets them out in the fresh air, it’s good exercise, and it helps them to relax.
“They also say how much they enjoy working with others and making friends.”
Whether benefiting from the social aspects of communal gardening at a Headway allotment or being active in your garden at home, it’s clear that there are many green-fingered gains on offer.
Sue Smith, 61, had always enjoyed being out in nature. But after she sustained a brain injury in a car accident in 1995, her love for the outdoors grew into something more.
“Since my accident, I struggle with my balance and I don’t go out so much. Since I can’t get out and about, it’s great that I have a space at home where I can enjoy time outdoors.
“When I’m inside, it gets me down and it makes me feel low. But being out in my garden fills me with a warm glow. It makes me feel happier, more positive.
“There are a lot of things I can no longer do, but I can still do my gardening. I think it helps me to have a hobby, it keeps me busy.
“Gardening has a huge impact on my mood; it’s what has kept me going since my brain injury.
“My neighbours like to come in my garden too. They say it has a lovely atmosphere, so there’s a really important social aspect to my gardening.
“I have so many different plants in my garden I couldn’t count them all. I love to see them grow and I take great care of them.
“The plants attract so much wildlife I could build an arc! There’s a family of blackbirds, a thrush, a robin and two turtle doves, along with butterflies, bees and even squirrels.”
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