An innovative aquaponics garden has not only encouraged residents of a South Coast aged care facility to eat their fruit and veg, it's even prompted a couple of them to speak after many months of silence.
The first of its kind in Australia, the "dementia-friendly" aquaponics garden at the Basin View Masonic Village will produce 350 kilograms of fish and 150 kilograms of yabbies each year, as well as an abundance of fruit, vegetables and flowers.
The garden, which was officially opened this month, was developed in conjunction with the University of Wollongong's Shoalhaven Marine and Freshwater Centre and was designed to allow access for wheelchairs, walkers and supported exercise.
General manager of the care facility Denise Leroy said the response from residents had been "amazing", with staff and carers left stunned when a couple of advanced-dementia residents spoke for the first time in months to express their delight at the garden.
"Spending time in the garden is crucial for residents' mental and physical health - it provides a calming environment and reduces agitation," she said.
"One lady who had not verbally communicated in many months said 'very calming' on a visit to the garden, to the great astonishment of the team.
"Another lady who doesn't really converse - only calls out to people - spent three days talking about the garden after a visit recently, much to the delight of her son.
"It's really had a very significant effect on the mental health and behaviour of our residents."
The garden was built by the Earthan Group, while staff and residents had a lot of input into its design and continue to be involved in cultivation and harvesting.
"It provides residents with meaningful activities, where they can be productive and literally see the fruits of their labours," Ms Leroy said.
"It also gives them a good excuse to get out and enjoy some fresh air and exercise, and being outdoors also helps them increase their vitamin D intake.
"And because they're so involved in the project, residents are more eager to eat a wide range of fruit and vegetables, which is fantastic."
Centre director Dr Pia Winberg helped develop the aquaponics system and UOW researchers continue to look at the positive flow-on effects for residents, staff and carers.
"Our focus at the centre, which is based at the Shoalhaven campus, is on the development of sustainable and efficient aquatic food production systems," she said.
"The system at Basin View Masonic Village is a novel application, as it's not primarily developed for efficient production of food - it's also about improving the quality of life for residents."
Dr Winberg said the project was a good example of how universities could help transform lives in their communities.