The Benefits of Gardening for the Elderly: Lessons from Havana, Cuba

As my own research in Havana, Cuba in 2003 found, elderly people who work in gardens and on farms experience myriad health benefits, some direct and some indirect.

Being physically active, mentally stimulated and having increased access to fresh food are direct health benefits. Having a sense of place or belonging in one’s community, feeling connected to one’s family history and cultural heritage, and feeling a sense of accomplishment are more indirect benefits to participating in gardening activities.

Over a four-month period in 2003, I visited more than 15 urban farms and gardens throughout Havana and interviewed dozens of retirees through the University of Havana’s Faculty of Social Sciences. Here are a few excerpts from the study:



Hilda’s Garden

I visited Hilda’s garden on a balmy Caribbean afternoon.  With the help of her friends and neighbors, she had transformed her concrete-covered, garbage-littered, urban Old Havana backyard into a thriving Garden of Eden. Her 20x30ft plot boasted 20 species of vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs as well 10 different types of fruit trees. As we chatted, three of her neighbors came by and asked for fresh herbs to use in their evening meals. A spry and vibrant septuagenarian, she cited eating fresh fruits and vegetables and leading an active life to her health and vitality. Although she did not mention it, surely having something to offer her neighbors gave her additional satisfaction and a feeling of importance in her community.  It might not be everyone’s idea of retirement, but it seemed to be working pretty well for her.

On the Farm with Arnoldo

At age 79, Arnoldo was as fit as someone in their 50’s. At age 60, he was given early retirement by the Cuban government due to a chronic back condition. He took care of his grandkids, drank rum and played dominoes. Then he became terribly bored. A friend told him about a garden where he worked and proposed that Arnoldo come along one day. When I spoke to Arnoldo, he was weeding a 100ft-long bed of lettuce. He was the manager of one of urban Havana’s largest urban farms called La Sazon (over 2 acres of row crops on an old parking lot).  His back problem had vanished and he was preaching the gardening gospel: “not only do I get paid in addition to my retirement pension, but I also get to bring healthy food home to my family (for free), and I feel better than I have in years.” His concluding remarks were something to the effect of, “sitting down, you accomplish nothing.”

A Day at Casa Santovenia

I visited Casa Santovenia during my research as well. Santovenia is a retirement home for around 150 individuals in suburban Havana. A seven-acre farm lies next to the facility and supports all of the fresh food needs of the dining hall. Eight full-time, non-resident employees manage the garden every day along with the help of around 15 residents from the home. The residents are invited to help on the farm each morning when the air is fresh and cool. I had numerous conversations with the residents at Santovenia; many seniors reported similar benefits to those I had already observed (physical movement, access to fresh food, etc.).

The most poignant observation at Santovenia, however, did not come from those short interviews. It came from observing the resident who brought a snack to the work crew at about 10:30. She was in her 90’s and clearly suffered from severe dementia. And yet, as everyone crowded around her for a snack of cookies and juice, she was overcome with joy – for those 10 minutes every day, she was the center of attention in her community. She had a reason to get out of bed every morning. Because there was a garden program at her home, she could be useful and feel loved and appreciated, even though she wasn’t even gardening! Because her friends and fellow residents were involved in the garden, she wanted to be part of it too. She was able to be an integral part of her community despite her severe mental condition.

As I prepared to depart that day, one of the workers on the farm at Santovenia said to me, “all human beings are capable of doing something, and they should have that opportunity.” I nodded yes in hearty agreement.

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