For older adults, gardening can be beneficial to their overall health and well-being. While some seniors may not have access to a garden or be unable physically to plant and weed, they can still enjoy the beauty and health benefits of indoor plants, specifically those that purify the air inside homes.
In 1989, NASA studied indoor air pollution, its effects on humans and how plants could help; their findings would help researchers provide healthier environments for astronauts in space stations. This research was the first of its kind and is the most frequently cited in research articles and online listicles. What NASA discovered was buildings that were energy-efficient and “superinsulated,” such as an office building, had reduced fresh air. Coupled with other pollutants such as synthetic building materials, furniture and humans, these contribute to a phenomenon called "sick building syndrome," which can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, and irritation of the ear, nose, and throat.
NASA discovered plants that require low light, with additional activated carbon filters, may improve indoor air quality, by removing pollutants benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde, all of which are found in common household products — detergent, adhesives and grocery bags, respectively. Plants can remove these toxins from the air (even soil and water) through photosynthesis.
B.C. Wolverton, Ph.D., was the principal investigator in NASA’s study. In his book, “How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office” and academic paper, “Plants and soil microorganisms: removal of formaldehyde, xylene, and ammonia from the indoor environment,” he lists the top 10 air purifying plants.
These houseplants were chosen by four criteria: removal of chemical vapors, ease of growth and maintenance, resistance to bug infestation, and how quickly water moves through the plant and evaporates.
- Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) – Removes formaldehyde and xylene, which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and vomiting
- Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa) – Removes formaldehyde, ammonia and xylene
- Bamboo palm (chamaedorea erumpens) – Removes benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and xylene
- Rubber plant (Ficus elastica) – Removes formaldehyde
- Dracaena or “Janet Craig" – Removes benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and xylene
- English Ivy (Hedera helix) – Removes benzene and trichloroethylene
- Dwarf date palm (Phoenix roebelenii) – Removes formaldehyde and xylene
- Ficus or “Weeping Fig” – Removes formaldehyde and xylene
- Boston fern (Nephrolepsis exalta) – Removes formaldehyde and xylene
- Peace lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii) – Removes benzene, formaldehyde, ammonia, trichloroethylene and xylene
To learn about temperature, sunlight and water levels, visit your local plant nursery or do a quick online search, such as “areca palm care sheet.” Also, if your loved one has a pet or frequent furry visitors, check out the ASPCA’s toxic and nontoxic plants list before you purchase any air purifying plant.
Gifting an air purifying plant to your older loved one will not only absorb toxins but also enliven the living space and gives them something to tend, boosting their overall mood.