Average life expectancy continues to rise and the large group of baby boomers is starting to reach pensionable age. Vitality is consequently an increasingly important theme, as the longer people are able to live independently, the less the cost of health care is likely to spiral out of control. This also applies for residential care centres and other forms of retirement housing. Strangely enough green plays little or no part in the adopted policy, despite the fact that Fytagoras has demonstrated how indoor plants can play a significant role in ageing healthily.

It is important that the elderly are healthy

Vitality is, of course, a broad concept related to how long the elderly feel healthy. Physical disability is very common among the elderly, but seniors who feel fit well into old age require less professional care than those who do not. The fitter a senior feels, the happier he or she will be and the lower the health care costs. The Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport has researched this extensively. The research discussed many different aspects of vitality, also in relation to the living environment, yet no attention was paid to green whatsoever. The living environment was examined purely with respect to such aspects as accessibility and home electronics.

Why is it logical that plants should be included when thinking about vitality?

The quality of the indoor environment (e.g. humidity, the presence of (toxic) volatile organic compounds, C02 levels and temperature) is largely responsible for people’s well-being. A healthy indoor environment helps prevent respiratory problems and encourages active behaviour. In the living situation of the elderly (residential care centres, sheltered accommodation, nursing homes, etc.) the indoor environment is often very poor; high temperatures, poor ventilation, stuffy etc., in addition to which the living space is seldom furnished in such a way as to encourage activity. Plants improve air quality but previous research also revealed that looking at plants increases a natural sense of well-being.

An interesting question, therefore, is how green affects the vitality of the elderly. What requirements must plants in the living environment of the over 65s meet? Which plants are suitable and how do they affect the indoor environment, well-being and experience? And what is the most effective number of plants?

Research into indoor green in a residential care centre

Research Institute Fytagoras researched these questions with an experiment in a residential care centre near Leiden. 8 of the 27 residents took part in this experiment. The other 19 served as a control group. One disadvantage of the experiment was that the plants were not randomly distributed among the residents. Several residents explicitly did not want a plant in their room as, despite the express assurance that the plant care was part of the project, they were worried this would entail extra work and care. As not all the residents were convinced that it would not, only those who did want a plant in their room were given one. In all other respects, such as health, location, view and distribution in the care centre, distribution was random.

The indoor climate in eight independent housing units was monitored continuously for six weeks before and after the plants were positioned. The temperature, amount of light, C02 and humidity were measured. Once a fortnight the level of formaldehyde was also measured separately. Interviews with the seniors taking part in the experiment were also conducted before and after the experiment. These interviews examined the (subjective) experience of the environment, activity and vitality of the test subjects.

Results call for further research

This residential care centre had a good air filtering system and the positioning of plants had no directly significant effect on the average C02 levels in the rooms. The same applied to temperature and humidity. The results could vary in other care homes.

The questionnaires and interviews with the participating seniors revealed that plants do have a positive effect on the well-being of the elderly and on their vitality. Many of them said they felt more at home in an environment with plants. Plants also reduce certain ailments significantly. Health complaints, skin disorders, psychosocial complaints and ‘flu-related ailments, for example. In turn, this increased the sense of vitality. A graph based on the results of the questionnaire illustrates this clearly. People with plants in their rooms had fewer health complaints and a higher sense of well-being:

Interestingly enough the graph reveals that the number of plants also influences the sense of vitality. Up to eight plants have a positive effect on the elderly. More than eight plants seems to reduce this positive effect. Skin disorders, in particular, seem in to increase.

Here’s to green care homes

For years, research has revealed that air quality improves and people feel better in environments with green. This research also reveals a link between green and happiness. However very little attention is paid to this in residential care centres. The main reasons for this are the expected work (care and watering) and lack of space. Both problems are solvable. Watering systems are available which reduce the watering frequency to once every 5-6 weeks and the plants to do not need to be very big. There are also various ways of growing plants vertically. Such as green walls of hanging plants, for example.