“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” –Audrey Hepburn
More and more senior living communities are finding that quote to ring true as their residents “blossom,” thanks to unique gardening programs that foster friendship, cultivate confidence, and provide purpose.
Since 2011, New York-based Atria Penfield’s gardening club members have produced their own vegetables and herbs to incorporate into the community’s menu. And since 2015, the gardening club at Silverado Peoria Memory Care Community in Arizona—led by horticultural therapist and Master Gardener Catherine Schoonmaker—has been tending four raised-bed gardens at the center of the community, harvesting watermelons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, beets, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, sunflowers, rosemary, lavender, and more.
We connected with Schoonmaker, a member of the American Horticultural Therapy Association, to learn how a gardening club grows and to unearth the benefits of gardening for senior living residents.
Growing a Gardening Club from the Ground Up
“My father passed in 2010 with complications from Alzheimer’s, and my mother presently has late-stage dementia,” says Schoonmaker. “As a caregiver of both parents with Alzheimer’s and dementia, I wantedto help other people with early onset dementia with a non-pharmaceutical, alternative approach to the disease.”
Armed with a love of gardening nurtured by her mother and grandmother, Schoonmaker completed a certification program in horticultural therapy and decided to start a gardening program at her mother’s memory care community.
The Silverado Peoria Gardening Club got off the ground in 2015 and is currently comprised of 6 to 12 residents who meet once a week for a 10-month program. Their self-appointed name: The Garden of Weedin’.
Horticultural Therapy vs. Therapeutic Gardening
Though Schoonmaker practices both horticultural therapy and therapeutic gardening, she admits the difference between the two can be unclear. She explains it this way:
“Horticultural therapy is the engagement of clients in a horticultural activity by a trained therapist in which to achieve specific documented goal outcomes. Therapeutic gardening works the same way, but outcomes of clients are not documented.”
However, Schoonmaker remains goal-oriented no matter which approach is requested by a particular senior community: “Whether I am doing therapeutic gardening or horticultural therapy, I approach every session with certain goals in mind for the group that will benefit each individual.”
Depending on the activity planned for a particular day, Schoonmaker selects three goals for gardening club members to accomplish. These goals may include:
- Physical exercise (e.g., watering, weeding, planting flowers and vegetables). “Many simple daily gardening tasks become an exercise in mobility for seniors,” says Schoonmaker. “These activities strengthen their bodies and minds.”
- Refining motor skills. Gardening helps seniors build muscle tone and enhance the coordination needed for walking and balancing, says Schoonmaker. Residents can also strengthen their hands and hone their fine motor skills by gripping the handle of a watering can.
- Cognitive stimulation. “Horticultural therapy stimulates residents’ cognitive abilities in decision-making, step-by-step task initiation, problem-solving, and reminiscing,” says Schoonmaker.
- Building endurance. Schoonmaker helps residents build endurance through activities such as walking back and forth to the water spigot to fill a watering can. She adds, “The task of standing by a raised bed to water for 15 minutes—without a walker—builds endurance.”
- Decision-making. “The group works together as a team,” says Schoonmaker. “They are all conversing about the flowers and vegetables and who will be watering what area of the garden.”
- Reminiscing. Schoonmaker tries to grow many of the heirloom flowers residents had in their past gardens to aid in the skill of reminiscing. The group can then use those flowers for indoor activities such as flower arranging, flower pressing, and seed collecting.
- Peer interaction. “We often talk about the gardens they had, and there is always a story that comes out of our conversations,” says Schoonmaker. “Socialization with peers builds friendships, and it gives a sense of self-worth and purpose.”
Fortunately, you don’t have to live in Arizona to blossom in a gardening program. Seniors can dig into gardening clubs and activities in assisted living and other senior communities across the country—and reap the associated benefits.
“When I establish horticultural therapy programs for any community, I want to give individuals a sense of pride and joy when they see their successes in the garden,” says Schoonmaker. “It not only helps them, it also helps families see that their loved ones have become important participants in their new community.”
CHIME IN: What would you consider the key benefits of gardening programs in senior living?