Landscapers are bombarded by advice about marketing to and servicing millennials to keep business thriving. But according to many landscape industry consultants, owners shouldn’t discount the just-as-lucrative baby boomer market.

Let’s look at the trends: By 2030, almost one out of every five Americans — some 72 million people — will be 65 years or older, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute on Aging. And one of their top interests is gardening and the outdoors.

Boomers are heeding research that shows access to nature and the development of inviting outdoor spaces as having many benefits for their health, including reduced stress, improved mood and satisfaction, increased physical activity, managed hormonal balance and smooth sleeping patterns.

Plants that attract birds and butterflies are especially therapeutic for seniors. Photo: iStock

Plants that attract birds and butterflies are especially therapeutic for seniors. Photo: iStock

According to Patty Cassidy, seniors’ interest in gardening is sprouting up more than ever before. She is a Portland horticultural therapist and author of two leading senior gardening books. “They are hearing from their doctors and reading medical research that points out gardening improves manual dexterity, mobility and strength,” she says. “It keep their minds sharp and reduces stress. And beyond the hard medical facts, seniors have fun enjoying the outdoor landscape and they get to eat and share the results.”

It’s the “Aging in Place” movement that’s leading the way for senior-focused landscaping. It started first with home architects and interior designers becoming certified aging-in-place specialists (CAPS), in response to the growing need to identify ways to help baby boomers “age gracefully” in their homes for as long as possible. Now, CAPS is branching out to include outdoor spaces in training and certifying landscapers, too.

The rules of senior landscapes

For the past four years, Curt Kiriu has been focusing on landscaping for the senior market throughout his U.S. Polynesian island headquarters in Oahu. He is owner and resident of CM Independent Living Builders, where he became a certified aging-in-place specialist after having to journey to the mainland to attend classes — a major investment in time and money that is now paying big dividends, he says.

“We’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to install landscapes at a number of major senior assisted living facilities (ALF) throughout the Honolulu area once we became certified,” he says. “As a result of our work on these projects, we’ve accumulated a wealth of knowledge relating to the creation of ALF landscapes.”

Knowing the physical capabilities and limitations of your senior clients is the most important factor. Photo: Patty Cassidy

Knowing the physical capabilities and limitations of your senior clients is the most important factor. Photo: Patty Cassidy

For example, Kiriu has learned that the need for safety, as well as exercise and social connection, are all critical to the creation of a healthy and active outdoor living environment for seniors. “I’ve learned that when it comes to safety, falling is one of the biggest risks faced by seniors and is the most frequent cause of injury-related morbidity and mortality among seniors in ALFs,” he explains.

Eric Drenner, co-founder and partner of eLandscape Specialty Solutions, a full-service landscaper that services many ALFs in the Annapolis, Maryland area, believes there are additional factors to take into account when designing and installing ALF landscapes. These include shading, either from trees or structures, to protect residents from overexposure to sunlight and heat; and providing resting areas through stopping points and seating. “Having a bench or chairs or reading nooks along the hardscape pathway may be helpful for the clients to sit during the day to relax or when tired,” he says.

John Kazalonis, landscaping and hardscaping contractor in San Diego, incorporates many raised beds with sittable broad caps on the sides. For sloping properties, he uses a lot of terraced areas with the same sitting possibilities in his landscape designs for his senior customers.

Shenandoah Kepler, president of Potomac, Maryland-based Fleeting Architecture, a popular blogsite for aging baby boomers maintaining their own home and yard, advises designers forego using steps in their landscape, ensuring that paths are at least 36 inches wide, and using rigid paving methods such as poured concrete, continuously-laid stone or brick or tamped down gravel. “Keep in mind that your clients will likely be in wheelchairs someday,” she says. “Anyone moving around the yard on wheels has to lift the chair up or down inclines and will get bogged down in any soft surfaces.”

Kiriu adds that hardscapes should have a consistent flat surface with a high non-slip coefficient rating and consistent and simple colors and patterns. “A polished or smooth surface might look nice, but may cause reflective glare from the sun, and if patterns are too busy they can increase disorientation,” he says.

Photo: Patty Cassidy

Photo: Patty Cassidy

Kiriu ensures that his garden pathways are at least 42 inches wide, continuous without separation more than half-an-inch with limited inclines less than 1/4 inch in height.

Drenner also believes that careful consideration should be given to plant selection when designing senior landscapes. “Focus in on nonpoisonous, olfactory-enhancing varieties, as well as the use of color that can easily be seen by residents with poor vision and/or cataracts. In addition, plants that are prickly to the touch should generally be avoided.”

Kiriu places plants, curbs or other materials along the edges of pathways to “reduce the risks of a misstep on the edge of the pathway and twisting an ankle and/or falling.”

Use plastic or fiberglass versus real clay pots. Photo: iStock

Use plastic or fiberglass versus real clay pots. Photo: iStock

The whole family is the client

Gardenworks in California’s Sonoma County recently created an award-winning senior-focused rehabbed landscape. The senior client wanted the property around his home to be lower in maintenance with a water-conserving irrigation system that has become increasingly critical to Gardenworks customers experiencing the long-term and tenacious Northern California drought.

Gardenworks built a concrete ramp to the front door from the driveway obscured from view at the sidewalk and created a decomposed granite ramped path from the side yard to a backyard covered patio to eliminate extra steps. It also added a tall water feature for easier cleaning and filling with a switch within easy reach. For outdoor lighting and irrigation, Gardenworks installed security and pathway lighting on a photocell and timer and weather-based irrigation controller that adjusts water zone run times daily. It built raised planters and vegetable boxes for easier access on the automated irrigation system and planted small stature trees to prevent sidewalk “lifting” from roots.

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

“We worked closely with the retired homeowner on the design,” says Gardenworks co-owner Jay Tripathi. “Be aware that retired persons will have extra time to be engaged with all the steps in creating their landscape project from start to finish.”

Kiriu agrees, saying often there is usually more than the senior client involved in the approval process of his designs and installations. “Primary caregivers, adult children, family members and friends all want to weigh in on the decision-making process to protect their seniors,” he says.

When there are “too many cooks in the kitchen,” Kiriu finds it important to stay in control of the landscape design/build experience by showcasing his expertise and being extra assertive in his choices.