Residential Aged Care: Using Food to Overcome Language Barriers

By on the Tuesday, November 19, 2013

ged Care Online recently published an article about the need for aged care workers who speak a second language to help ageing migrants with limited English.

Toni Salter from The Veggie Club got in contact with us to talk about her strategy for helping ageing migrants through gardening and growing cultural foods.


She is a registered horticulturalist and recreation therapy assistant and has been running therapeutic gardening activities for more than four years.

“I started with disability, working with adults from 18 to 65 years old with a wide range of physical and intellectual disability” she said.

“A lot of what I do is relevant for aged care facilities, as disability services relate to working with client’s mobility limitations and cognitive decline.  When I saw the parallel within many other services such as mental health, rehabilitation, aged care and disability, I decided to help others provide some fun gardening programs too… Some older people who have been gardeners all their lives often think that they can’t garden any longer as they age because it becomes difficult for them.  I try to focus on smaller, easier jobs in the garden like sowing seeds and potting up and watering some plants.  Even just talking about the garden while we sit together and enjoy the atmosphere is rewarding for many without even getting their hands dirty.”

Q.2 Have you come across residents in aged care who speak English as a second language, or have minimal English skills?

“It’s not only aged care residents, it’s carers and some family members too who often struggle with English… I have even worked with new migrants to Australia who are having settling in problems. The common bond and universal skills of gardening mean that planting and gardening can sometimes be done without the need to talk too much.”

Q.3 How did the idea of planting cultural foods to help migrant residents come about?

Food is a social event, whether it’s just having a meal together or celebrating something special.  Different cultures have common foods that they use especially herbs and vegetables. So having a plant that is identified as part of their usual cuisine can bring some understanding and bonding.  I can teach them how to grow these plants if they haven’t been a gardener before and they can then show me how to eat the produce.

Q.4. What did you plant? What was the reaction by residents?

For South American residents we can plant things like okra to make gumbo together.  Italians love to grow tomatoes, and will always tell me which variety is best! And basil, so we make pesto and pasta sauce with the produce.

Pacific Islanders use a lot of taro in their cooking so it’s great to grow some taro in a wet spot in the garden.  Many Chinese people will have leafy vegetables like wom bok, pak choi and others.

I love seeing the smiles on their faces when they recognise the plants and then I see them try hard to communicate with me about how they used it.  Eating together means we don’t have to talk but still enjoy being together.

Q.5 Is it easy for aged care workers to adopt such an idea? What are some tips you can give them

Very easy.

Start small, just a few pots is all you need.  Some herbs or succulents grown indoors are easy.

A trolley can bring the potted garden inside to enjoy and then taken back outside where the plants grow best – and sometimes out of harms way. Sowing some seeds together is fun for everyone and can be done while seated at a table.

Q.6 Why do you think this works?

It’s a matter of bringing in something familiar and working together on this to build bridges and break down barriers. It’s all about the people-plant connections and finding which plant triggers some emotions for different people.  We can then work with the emotions, good and bad.