Summary: Lifting spirits and improving memory in seniors may be as simple as sending flowers. Rutgers University, in cooperation with the Society of American Florists, examined the impact of flowers on emotion, sociability, and mental capacity in older adults. Learn the intriguing results as reported in the peer reviewed Journal of Evolutionary Psychology.
Can flowers ward off depression, boost memory, and increase social activity in older adults? That is what researchers at Rutgers University were asking in 2001. Led by Jeannette Haviland-Jones PH.D., the Rutgers team, linked up with the Society of American Florists (SAF) to find out whether flowers affect mood, memory, and socialization in seniors.
They knew from previous studies that floral fragrances in perfume could improve mood, and now they wanted to learn whether cultivated flowers would do the same. They also wanted to know whether secondary benefits came along with a happier mood; namely, they wondered whether flowers would improve cognition and increase sociability.
For the study, about 100 retirees ranging in age from 55 to 93 were recruited from assisted living facilities and retirement communities. Each study participant met for three consecutive weeks with a volunteer interviewer. At the first meeting, interviewers recorded baseline data and administered the Differential Emotional Scale (DES), a series of questions that determine mood and identify emotions like happiness, sadness, and guilt.
Participants also answered questions about overall life satisfaction, both present and past. For those questions, interviewers used the Life Satisfaction Survey (LSS), a screening tool for depression. According to the study report, which was published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, depression is not uncommon in this age group and sometimes goes undetected.
Throughout the study, participants made note of their social activity in special booklets, logging in medical visits, contact with family and friends, and other encounters. At their second interview, participants’ mood and life satisfaction levels were screened once again.
Some participants were gifted with a floral delivery a few days after their second interview. For some it was their first bouquet. For another group, however, it was their second, as some participants received flowers after both the first and second interviews. A third group received no flowers during the experiment.
At the third and final interview, mood was again charted, and this time episodic memory was evaluated. At the third meeting, interviewers learned which participants had received flowers, and those recipients were asked to describe their floral arrangements.
Points were recorded for correct information on the shape of the vase and color and type of flowers. The activity booklets also figured into the memory exercise. Points were allotted for information, supplied from memory, about social encounters and for booklet details including design and colors.
To evaluate results researchers divided participants into two groups, those who received flowers and those who did not. Analyzing DES, LSS, and other data, researchers saw a significant increase in positive feelings in those who had received bouquets.
“Participants who had received flowers early reported more interest and happiness,” said lead author Dr. Haviland-Jones, and “at the end of the second week all participants who had received flowers again report more interest and happiness.”
Indeed, 64% of those who received flowers after the first interview and a striking 84% of those who received flowers after both the first and second interview scored lower for depression than their baseline. As for those who did not receive flowers, the study found “about half the ‘no flowers group’ increased, and half decreased their depression scores, as expected by chance.”
Episodic recall was also greater, and significantly so, in the flower recipients. “The secondary effect is as strong or stronger than the reported mood shift.” In contrast, no change occurred in socialization for either group. “The potential for change in social contacts might be very limited for most of the participants who resided in retirement homes,” explained Haviland-Jones.
Anecdotally, Haviland-Jones says flower recipients showered kisses and hugs on people delivering flowers, and sent thank you notes after the study concluded. Speaking of the fervent responses, she said, “Some participants responded with such unusual (for experimental studies) emotional displays that we were unprepared to measure them.”
That does not surprise Jennifer Sparks, who has been with the Society of American Florists for almost 20 years. The appeal of fresh flowers, she said in an email, is universal “for all sorts of occasions and reasons, through all the milestones of life, from birth to death and all the important times in between.” The SAF website issues an apt invitation to would-be florists: ‘make people smile.’
A positive mood “improves memory processes and serves as a buffer against stress,” say the study authors. The older adults in this study were happier and possibly smarter after receiving floral bouquets.
And, after the experiment concluded, some participants wrote notes of gratitude and sent photographs of their bouquets to the research team, along with invitations to visit, all behaviors Haviland-Jones says she had never seen before in many years of studying emotion, even in studies where participants received gifts of higher value or monetary compensation. “Flowers,” she said, “are different.”