Supporting men with a terminal illnesses through gardening

Categories: Care.

Men’s Health Week (15-21 June) is a national week of awareness raising activity around health issues specifically affecting men. The campaign aims to encourage men to make sure that they know how to recognise the signs of illnesses, and to talk about any health issues they have.

St Richard’s Hospice has found that men can sometimes find it difficult to discuss health problems and so may be reluctant to join support groups.

So a year ago, the hospice set up a Men’s Space Group, in partnership with Prostate Cancer UK, to give men with terminal illnesses the opportunity to spend time with other men in similar situations.

The group offers an introduction to the hospice and perhaps prevents them from being alone.

During the warmer months, this small group meets in the hospice’s serene gardens and tends a few flowers and vegetables. Horticulture expert Duncan Coombs – a recently retired lecturer from Pershore College – is on hand to guide men with little or no experience of gardening and help experienced ‘green fingered’ men develop their skills. 

The men enjoy taking a short time away from the pressures of life and their illnesses, the chance to relax and the opportunity to share any problems they have with others who may be experiencing the same issues.

Group members can be given support from other St Richard’s services if this is appropriate, including benefits advice, counselling, complementary therapies and time with specialist doctors and nurses.

Friendship, relaxation and mutual support

Vanessa Gibson, community nursing manager, explained how the group came about: “We noticed that it is predominantly women who attend our support groups and so we decided to set up a group especially for men.

“There is always a nurse on hand in case anyone feels poorly or wants to talk about his illness. The ethos of the group is that sometimes in the midst of hospital appointments, health concerns and treatments, patients may need some space.”

Each week, up to ten men join the informal sessions and take part in gardening related activities which are matched to each person’s level of ability.

Last summer, their first season, the group enjoyed a successful crop of new potatoes, tomatoes and salad leaves and are hoping for similar success this year.

Each session is structured so that there is plenty of time to sit down for a cup of tea and those who would prefer to sit and relax can do so in the group’s dedicated shed.

Duncan Coombs, the volunteer group leader, said: “We thought it would be fun to set up a group so that chaps can get together and do some light gardening, have a cup of tea and a chat.

“It would give them a break and learn a bit about gardening – some know a little and some have lots of knowledge to share. The group plans their activities week by week, and over the summer grow vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce and sweetcorn. It doesn’t really matter how successful the harvest is, it’s the process of tending to the plants that the men find therapeutic.”

Chris Green, who has a brain tumour and is currently being supported by St Richard’s Hospice, has been attending the Men’s Space Group since it started.

He said: “I have really enjoyed picking up new skills, such as learning how to prick out seedlings and how to take hard and softwood cuttings. I enjoy coming along to the group as there’s a real sense of friendship and we have a bit of a laugh. It gives us all a break from the serious business of life, but we have the opportunity to share our problems if we want to.”

Over the winter and cooler spring months, the group have enjoyed visits from speakers and a trip out to visit the beautiful spring flowers at Spetchley Gardens.

But while these weekly topics have moved away from a gardening theme, the group has continued to offer a calm environment for relaxation, care and mutual support.

To join the Men’s Space group the person must have a confirmed life-threatening diagnosis; a South Worcestershire GP and be referred to St Richard’s Hospice. Anyone can refer to the group including patients themselves and hospice staff will liaise with the patient’s GP. For more information visit the hospice’s website.

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