Comfort is not a luxury. Comfort is a necessity.
My name is Annie. I’m my mother’s caregiver ambassadress, a card-carrying member of the sandwich generation, and I have miles saved up on anxiety airlines. Nature is my safe place.
Sacred space is where you can find yourself again and again. —Joseph Campbell
It’s 9:40 pm on a Friday evening. I’ve just come in from weeding the front garden by streetlight while the glow of the lamps washed across my terrain like a cozy blanket. Bugs were minimal thanks to the cold winter and spring—the temperature requires only an old sweatshirt. The street noise is quiet thanks to small-town living.
Time warped. While I was busy in my caregiver’s world managing Mom’s decompensating cognitive functioning, dandelions and thistles invaded the rose garden. My heart is wrenched by her attempts to logically explain her recent elopement from the caregiving facility and a two-mile sojourn that left her with a severe sunburn on her forehead, arms, and hands. Weedy thoughts inhabit the garden of her brain.
I’ll be honest, it spooks me.
I saddle up again to ride into this latest landscape of our relationship, in this new season of aging. The dementia weeds grow taller and wider and pricklier along the fence line of Mom’s personality, making her more obscure to me. I dig deeper to stoke my memory of her. The treatment team I’ve assembled prune a bit at this weedy illness with sequential rounds of trial medications, yet nothing can eradicate the progression, eruption, and encroachment of the disease. I am once again “asked” to accept and carry on. And so I do.
Instinct tells me I’m in for a bumpy ride, yet before I call the night staff to request two-hour observation “check and charts” I weed that corner of my safe place. I take five. I take ten. I take thirty and get dirty. I meet Mom here in the garden and nature helps me fall into the sweet meadows of memory. I weed, prune, and clear while I run the movie reel of us and how we used to be, together. Gardening. Side by side.
With each weed I root from soil, I feel completion, calm, and coherency. It worked again. Comfort found. With renewed resilience, I prevail.
According to the 2012 Annual Report of the American Psychological Association, caregivers—specifically family members—are among the most stressed. Those of us who have a loved one with dementia are in a unique stress group as we witness, advocate for, and care for a parent who was once our secure base but is now in decline. Hypervigilance persists 24/7, as do the weeds of exhaustion, anger, rage, and guilt. Self-care is so far down the list it might not even be on the list.
And we often have kids. We have a marriage or partnership to tend and work or a business to run. We have friends. And we need to do our laundry.
In my work as a garden designer, I help people—many of them caregivers—to create what I call a Garden Comfort Zone (GCZ). These gardens are intentional, uniquely personal and meaningful, and they connect mind, body, and soul with the healing aspects of nature. They offer space for consolation.
GCZs are restorative as both a space and a tonic activity that builds emotional strength and resilience, reduces the negative impacts of stress, and helps boost relaxation, mood, and mental functioning. They are a safe place for feelings and self-care; a place to reboot and find ease from pain, grief, and stress. A place where, even if only momentarily, we reattach to who we are.
We may do absolutely nothing when in our GCZ but simply be still and rest—passive healing—or we may take part in an active task like planting or other healing arts.
Create Your Own Garden Comfort Zone
Begin by identifying a place for your garden that is nearby, easy to access, and visible from indoors. You’ll want to be able to easily slip into your escape hatch when the moment allows, but even just seeing that special spot in your peripheral vision throughout the day supports your mind and spirit.
When scouting your location, set your sights on a spot that is intimate, cozy, and small. We keepers-of-all-moving-parts don’t need anything else to take care of. These zones are just a slip of space, likely not more than a corner, enough for one comfy chair. My GCZ is a corner of our back deck, perched under the eaves, accessible from indoors, both physically and visually, via French doors. My space is just large enough for me, the dog Maverick, and the cat Queen. This is intentional.
Devotion and caregiving is an all-season, all-weather endeavor. Ideally, your GCZ should be a spot that you can dwell in any time, any day, any season, and in nearly any weather. Select a spot with some overhead cover like an eave, pergola, tree canopy, or umbrella. I have been known to get into rain gear, thermals, cap, and a blanket to get a dose of nature’s comfort in my GCZ. You may want to add an outdoor heater, chiminea, or fire bowl as well.
When tapping into a soulful connection with healing nature, we instinctively create space in which to burrow. This simple act is rooted so deeply in our primitive brains that when we create a personal and meaningful intimate haven, we reconnect with the oldest, most simple, most pure sense of our being.
Plants provide a feast for our eyes, ears, fingers, feet, noses, and appetite.
Even better, research over the last decade or so has shown that beneficial soil-dwelling microbes and bacteria are natural antidepressants and can help boost our immune systems and make us happier and healthier.
When we feel safe, healing can begin. When we combine a safe space with the salutary, sensory-based benefits of nature up close and consumed daily, we double down on building reserves and boosting resilience. Stay in your comfort zone—frequently and for as long as you possibly can. Open your senses that have likely been dulled by chronic stress, and nurture your lively curiosity to offset the constant problem solving and anticipation you’re used to. Your senses need Vitamin N—Nature—so you can make sense for others.
I finish cleaning up the front garden. Standing back, I give it a measured look and find sweet, satisfying moments of comfort. The job is finished and I can rest, if only for a few brief moments. There is no crisis. This garden, this zone of renewal, is wide enough and tall enough and deep enough that I, the keeper-of-all-moving-parts, can breathe.
And so I do, deeply breathe all that green, all that serenity, all that comfort.
I’m ready to tackle the next couple of hours of calls back and forth with the care staff at the assisted living facility where Mom lives. Ready to lean into the next sheet of grief that lies over my heart. Like any good mother would, Mother Nature has my back. She holds a place for my mom and me and allows me the opportunity, and the endurance, to still be a daughter. Not a wannabe daughter, nor a former daughter, but a daughter, still. The intimate conversation once sparked by Mom and me is still heard. I take in wisdom and life lessons. No need to feel estranged nor orphaned. I find comfort here.