Move over Alan Titchmarsh, Alan Harding has taken top spot as best gardener the UK has to offer, and as luck has it, he just so happens to live with us here at Gibraltar Nursing Home.

At Gibraltar, life history work is key to learning how we can encourage a routine for our residents, who we affectionately refer to as family members, that is true to their identity. Attachment theories give us clues as to which type of interaction works best with each family member and provides us with guidance about how we form an attachment with this person. Once we form an attachment, we are able to build trust and encourage them to partake in occupations that reflect their identity.

Alan Harding has spent his whole life needing to wake up with a purpose, so when he moved into Gibraltar Nursing Home, our team knew we had to find a way we could support this. It is common knowledge that being outside and exposing ourselves to natural light can have a positive effect on our mental health. But what if this light could hold the power to completely transform a person’s mindset and make them fall in love with living again?

That was the case for Alan when he rediscovered a lost love that had been waiting for him in Gibraltar’s gardens. I spoke with Alan’s wife, Jennifer, about their life together and how Alan’s new found sense of purpose at Gibraltar has allowed him to not only reconnect with family, but with himself.

Alan’s Early Years of Friendship & Community

Alan was born in 1945 and was the only son of Wilfred Harding and Olive Harding, who were both from Morpeth, Northumberland. When Alan came along, they set up a happy life in Gloucester, but Alan fondly remembers his visits, by train, to Morpeth each year to see his grandparents and extended family. One of his favourite memories he recalls of his youth was the year that the snow was so deep they had to stay for three weeks until it was safe to travel home.

Along with his best friend Steve, who lived next door to him, and the other boys in the village, Alan was a much loved member of the local youth club. His town had a big community spirit, and many of the boy’s parents were involved with the club. Alan’s Dad, who was an upholsterer, repaired all of the youth clubs seating for them, and this need to be hands on and help out in his community was something he passed on to Alan.

From Schoolboy to Engineer

At the tender age of sixteen, with an ‘O’ level in metalwork, Alan made the bold decision to leave school in pursuit of an engineering apprenticeship. In those days it was relatively easy to get accepted to one, and so Alan managed to secure a place with The Gloucester and Carriage and Wagon Company. What he lacked in formal qualifications, he more than made up for with a strong work ethic and determination, and so he began his training to be a draughtsman.

Qualifications were merely the starting point for Alan —he believed what really matters is the strength of your drive, commitment, and willingness to go the extra mile. It’s this that will define success and open doors that may have appeared previously locked.

A Valentines Day to Remember – Meeting Jennifer

“At this point, I come on the scene,” Alan’s wife, Jennifer, tells me. Jennifer was working for an engineering company that just so happened to be in the same building as Alan’s drawing office. “After a while I became aware of this young man seemingly walking past the office on a regular basis. I really didn’t take any notice but the girl I worked with said, “I think someone fancies you Jenny.” Soon after, one of the juniors in Alan’s office brought up a note to Jennifer asking if she was free that evening to go to the cinema. “I phoned him and said yes, and asked if we could go and see Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. He dragged me out just before the end and we ran to The New Inn in Gloucester for a much needed drink.” Jenny still has the note today. The date was Valentine’s Day, 1967.

They got married two years later and along the way had two lovely daughters, from whom they gained two great son in laws and two wonderful grandsons. “I have lots of happy memories of our life together. Alan travelled quite a lot but the memory I treasure most was the joy on his face when he saw the children and I waiting for him on his return. We would put Liv in her pushchair and the four of us would go out for a walk, and talk and talk.”

Alan’s Journey to the Top: Hard Work Pays Off

Alan continued to work hard throughout his life, with Jennifer describing him as always having “stamina, tenacity, and a strong character.” This ability to work hard eventually led to him becoming the youngest General Manager in the history of the company. But this still wasn’t enough for Alan, who was full of ambition and dreamt of becoming Manager Director.

He was ready for the challenge. Alan began a part time degree course in Bristol while carrying on his day job and travelling overseas. Jennifer told me “I think, looking back now that Alan relished the challenge. Our youngest daughter Olivia was born during that time and I have a memory of Alan in the dining room, table covered with papers, and Liv beside him in her carrycot.”

Of course, he passed, making Alan the youngest Managing Director in the history of the company. “The local paper at that time wrote an article about him and the phone didn’t stop ringing all night. Not many people get to achieve their dreams and I remember him picking me up and swinging me around with happiness.”

Alan’s Dementia Diagnosis

When a man who is used to a life filled with dreams, travelling the world, and celebrating his joy and successes with his family is faced with a Dementia diagnosis, as you can expect, it isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Alan was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and the dementia followed. Jennifer dedicated herself to caring for him at home, until she reached the point in Alan’s dementia journey where she was faced with a decision many life partners are faced with.

Jennifer had no one to ask advice. As it so often goes, her children do not live locally and she had no help at all. “Alan and I had no quality of life anymore and I dreaded each day. In the end it comes down to your loved one being in a safe place with qualified people to take care of them. And you have to think of yourself too.” It was time for Jennifer to look for extra support, which she found at Gibraltar Nursing Home, where there is a team qualifed in supporting people living with dementia. “It was a very hard decision to make and not something taken lightly. Lots of factors had to be considered, not least the financial cost. I feared Alan would think I was abandoning him. Although he’d spent time in respite care before, it was on the premise of his coming home after two weeks. Actually leaving him there and coming home to an empty house was a totally different experience for me.”

Alan’s move to Gibraltar marked the beginning of a difficult adjustment process for him and Jennifer admits that Alan didn’t settle well at first. “I know he was depressed. My daughters knew I was questioning the decision as to whether I had made a mistake and perhaps should have tried harder to cope. Other carers seem to manage so why couldn’t I?”

Restoring Quality of Life Through Compassionate Care

Gibraltar Nursing is part of Evolve Care Group, who have created a Household Model of Care that they deliver through their Evolve Care Academy training that all of Gibraltar’s team members benefit from. In their training, they are taught how to use attachment theories and life history work to assess the emotional needs of family members living with dementia, and so when the team discovered Alan had been an avid gardener throughout his life, they worked to build upon the knowledge they had gained and used it to create a personalised care plan.

They appreciated his determination to remain independent and so the plan focused on establishing meaningful connections through gardening and giving Alan a sense of purpose, providing him with tools so he could garden independently and have control over his own life.

Nurturing New Roots: Finding Purpose in Gardening

Alan’s care plan has helped him to rediscover his purpose and identity while navigating life with dementia, and both the team and his family have witnessed a remarkable shift in him. Gibraltar’s Team Leader, Bridget, has been helping Alan in the garden and said that giving Alan role as Head Gardener had “completely transformed” him. “I must say at this juncture that Bridget has been fantastic with Alan”, Jennifer tells me. “She seems to understand that Alan has to, when he can, be doing something. As for the garden, well, the pictures say it all.”

Plans were arranged to move Alan into a garden room, and soon he was in a new space facing the greenhouse, with trees, soil, and vegetables growing just outside his door. “Our girls and I are very pleased with the change. We always had a garden to tend to and I will miss the tomatoes Alan grew every year in the greenhouse. I seriously don’t know how Alan would have coped if he’d had no access to the garden.”

A New Path

The care plan has also been beneficial to Alan’s family, who are able to visit and spend quality time in the garden with him. “As a family we love it, and our grandchildren are free to run around and play. A lot of work has been done to make sitting outside pleasurable and it’s a great environment to relax and chat and make Alan feel part of the family group, even though we have to leave at the end of the visit.”

Dementia takes so much from us. Alan’s story serves as a reminder that when we put the effort in to understand a person’s needs, we can make a positive and lasting impact on their life. For Alan, what helps him is the simple pleasure of digging his hands into the soil and returning to pull new life out from it. When Alan is working on his flowers and his paths, he’s happy.

To read more about life in our homes, and the inspiring stories of people living purposeful lives post dementia diagnosis, please visit our News and Blogs page.