How this Chelsea Flower Show garden helps people with rare dementias

The Rare Space garden has been designed to help those with rare forms of dementia enjoy the outdoors.

A gardening expert has shared how he designed a spectacular Chelsea Flower Show garden specifically for people living with rare forms of dementia.

Award-winning landscape designer Charlie Hawkes has created The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space sanctuary garden at the show after working closely with one of the charities it supports, Rare Dementia Support.

The garden – which has won an RHS Gold Award – has been designed as a space that can be enjoyed by people with rare forms of dementia, particularly visual and spatial forms of the condition.

It’s sponsored by Project Giving Back and will be showcased at Chelsea this week.

Greenery, flowers and bright benches in the Rare Space dementia-friendly gardenCredit: RHS / Tim Sandall
The Gold Award-winning Rare Space sanctuary garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show

Taking part in gardening activities can be particularly beneficial for people living with dementia. It helps increase physical activity levels and provides opportunities for social interaction. Studies have also found that gardening can help to reduce stress and anxiety, and improve quality of life and cognitive function.

This year, the Royal Horticultural Society has encouraged the creation of Chelsea gardens with an accessibility theme. The show also features a wheelchair-accessible garden for the charity Horatio’s Garden; a Choose Love garden, which is inspired by refugees; a garden designed to help bereaved people find peace; and a picnic for schoolchildren from disadvantaged areas of London.

We spoke to Hawkes to find out more about how he designed the Rare Space garden with those experiencing dementia in mind.

Designing the dementia-friendly garden

Hawkes collaborated with the team at Rare Dementia Support as part of his research for the space. He also spoke with a number of people who receive support from the charity and have a rare form of dementia called posterior cortical atrophy (widely referred to as PCA).

Below he reveals the most important aspects that informed his work.

1. Bold colours

People living with PCA can have problems with seeing what and where things are, and this was a huge consideration for Hawkes when creating his garden design.

After speaking to Rare Dementia Support members who are living with PCA, this led his design to evolve from what he originally had in mind.

“I’d put together a draft design and was showing it to one of the charity’s member’s called Martina,” explains Hawkes, speaking to Exceptional.

“The structures are very bright in the design, such as vivid blue benches that contrast with the copper colour of each shelter, and each shelter’s edges also have bold primary-coloured outlines to help people with PCA navigate their way around the garden.

Bright benches pictured in the Rare Spaces garden at Chelsea Flower Show, alongside greenery and a single pathwayCredit: RHS / Tim Sandall
Pops of bright colour punctuate the dementia-friendly garden designed by Hawkes

“My original concept was to make the planting quite green and calming, to contrast with the colours within the structures.

“But when I showed what I’d planned to Martina, she said the colour of the planting was making her feel depressed

“She told me that, for her, colour is joy, and that she would love to see more colours in the planting.”

As a result, the garden now includes around 2,000 plants and vibrant flowers in pink, purple, blue and red tones.

“While the planting still has a calm green fabric, it’s also complemented with moments of bold colour, as a direct result of chatting with Martina,” Hawkes said.

2. Easy to navigate

The garden has been designed to be easy to navigate, with a simple single-path route.

Hawkes hopes that this will be particularly helpful for people with PCA, to avoid them becoming lost or being unsure where to go.

In addition, the blue benches are located just off the main path, so they are easy to find.

Landscape gardener Charlie Hawkes sitting on a blue bench in his dementia-friendly gardenCredit: Ginger Horticulture
Hawkes on one of the bright blue benches in the Rare Space garden

3. Moments of movement

A water feature also provides a further visual contrast for everyone to enjoy who visits the Rare Space Garden at Chelsea Flower Show.

“Movement can help people to recognise something when they have a visual form of dementia,” Hawkes explains.

“For example, if a bird was sitting still on a rooftop, a person with PCA probably wouldn’t be able to see it, but as soon as it started to fly, they would, because motion detection is a different part of the brain that’s unaffected by the condition.

“That’s why the water feature within the Rare Space garden has motion and sound,” he adds. “But it’s been designed to minimise reflectivity and glare, as these factors can be disorientating for people with visual dementias such as PCA.

“I hope the garden will increase the feeling of wellbeing and connectedness of people living with rare dementias and other neurological conditions.”

Purple and yellow flowers amongst greenery at the Rare Space garden at Chelsea Flower ShowCredit: RHS / Tim Sandall
Colourful plants feature amongst the greenery

Increasing understanding of rare dementias

The charity Rare Dementia Support is thrilled to have this platform to increase awareness of these conditions.

“Having the National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space Garden at the show gives us an incredible opportunity to raise awareness and increase understanding about the rare forms of dementia,” Nikki Zimmerman, direct support lead at Rare Dementia Support, tells us.

“When people hear the word dementia, they usually think of older people with memory problems but these rare forms can strike at a young age. They often affect skills other than memory too, such as vision, language, behaviour and movement.

“What is really important too is how several of our members have been involved in the design of the garden, particularly those affected by posterior cortical atrophy,” she adds. “Charlie Hawkes responded really well to their input and it’s given them a great sense of achievement for the part they have played in the Rare Space Garden at Chelsea Flower Show.”

Posterior cortical atrophy: an overview

PCA is a rare form of dementia in which damage occurs at the back of the brain, which mainly processes visual and spatial information.

In the vast majority of people, PCA is caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Yet in the early stages of the condition, people with PCA tend to have a relatively well-preserved memory.

However, as damage in the brain spreads as the disease progresses, people will typically develop more of the common symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease such as memory loss and confusion.

PCA can initially cause difficulties with a person’s vision, such as being able to see what and where things are. People can also experience issues with literacy and numeracy.

The first symptoms of PCA are often subtle and tend to occur when people are in their mid-fifties or early sixties.

Early signs can include:

Reaction to the Rare Space Garden

The Rare Space sanctuary garden has gained the seal of approval from Heather, 58, who has been diagnosed with PCA.

“It’s been designed with people like me in mind and will really help to raise awareness of rare dementias,” she tells Exceptional.

“Importantly, I think it will also help to show how the symptoms can be very different to what people expect when they hear the word dementia.”

Gardening and visiting gardens has always been a passion for Heather. “It’s a great way to get away from the everyday stresses of life,” she says.

“I particularly enjoy visiting gardens to see what can be achieved and to gain ideas of plants that I can try to grow myself.”

The chartered accountant had to take early retirement due to health problems, and was subsequently diagnosed with PCA.

“I had to look up PCA as I had never heard of it,” Heather explains. “I burst into tears when I realised that it was progressive and I would lose my sight.”

Three people standing in the Rare Space garden at Chelsea Flower ShowCredit: Ginger Horticulture
Hawkes with Rare Dementia Support members David and Helena Clarke

The support she and husband Mark have received from Rare Dementia Support has been invaluable in helping them with coming to terms with Heather’s condition.

“They were so helpful when I was first diagnosed and gave us lots of information,” Heather says.

“They also encouraged Mark and I to go along to their support meetings to meet others affected by PCA. We still go along to meetings now when we can.”

Maintaining independence is important for Heather and keeping active and mentally stimulated is something that she’s found works well for her.

“I do have to be careful with my vision, though, and I’ve had a couple of falls, usually when I’m walking too fast and don’t see something that I might trip over.”

Rare Space sanctuary garden at Chelsea Flower Show.Credit: Ginger Horticulture
Actor Stephen Graham (second from left) attended the unveiling of the garden

Actor Stephen Graham, who has previously worked with Rare Dementia Support, is also impressed with how the garden has turned out.

Speaking at the garden’s unveiling, he said: “It has been an absolute pleasure to spend time on The National Brain Appeal’s Rare Space garden at RHS Chelsea Flower Show and to understand how you can design and use certain types of plants, trees and flowers to make it somewhere that people with rare dementias can enjoy and feel safe.

“When I was researching young-onset Alzheimer’s for my character Tony in the Channel 4 drama HELP, I was privileged to work with Rare Dementia Support, funded by The National Brain Appeal.

“I saw first-hand, what an absolute lifeline these support groups are for people and their loved ones affected by rare dementias.

“These are often people with jobs and young families and their worlds are turned upside-down. I found the experience of talking to them really humbling.”

How to see the Rare Space garden

The Rare Space sanctuary garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show is open to the public from Tuesday May 23 to Saturday May 27 2023.

Once the show ends, the Rare Space Garden will be temporarily moved to Exbury Gardens, a 200-acre woodland garden located in New Forest, Hampshire. Its permanent location will be the Rare Dementia Support Centre in central London, which is currently in development.

“We are absolutely thrilled that the garden is going to be relocated to the Rare Dementia Support Centre when it is ready,” Zimmerman (pictured above) says. “It will become an integral part of the help and support that we provide.

“When people visit us at the Centre, they will be able to go out into the garden and do activities there. It will be a lovely tranquil space for our Rare Dementia Support members to enjoy.”

For more information on plans for the UK’s first Rare Dementia Support Centre, visit The National Brain Appeal.


Julie Penfold

Written by Julie Penfold she/her


Julie Penfold has been a specialist health and wellbeing journalist for more than 15 years and has been a finalist in three prestigious health and medical journalism awards during that time. She has written for a wide variety of health, medical, wellbeing and fitness magazines and websites. These have included Running, TechRadar, Outdoor Fitness, Be Healthy, Top Sante, and The Guardian’s Social Care network.

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