Health-care gardens heal, preserve feeling of ‘home’

For years, my grandfather has meticulously manicured his pachysandra, faithfully planted his gladiolus bulbs and dutifully cleaned up every leaf that has ever dropped from every tree around his house.

I’d have to guess it’s been a source of pride – and artistic expression for a man who only found time to dabble in watercolors after retiring from a seven-day-a-week job as a father of six and owner of a small family grocery.

But now the time has come when he and my grandmother have to make that decision whether or not to move to an assisted living center. It’s a hard decision to make, with so many emotional ties to the home and landscape they’ve overseen and had so many memories in for so long.

When and if it comes to that, however, at least my grandparents won’t have to move to a cold, landscape-free environment more reminiscent of a hospital than a home.

That’s because today’s health-care and senior living facilities now resemble communities with many of the garden and landscape features residents remember from their own homes: tree- and flower-lined paths for walking, vegetable and flower gardens for working and even water features, plants and other features specifically incorporated for healing.

In fact, here are some of the landscaping features today’s aging population can pretty much expect when moving to a health-care or senior living community:

Easy-care plants with season-long interest

Those in senior living and health-care communities want low-maintenance, tough plants that are reliably colorful and healthy-looking all season long. Residents at the Rolling Fields Elder Care Community in Conneautville, Pennsylvania, for instance, love looking at the Flower Carpet roses (pictured above) in the home’s Enchanted Garden, since they bloom May through November and are disease, drought and pest resistant. The roses were also planted with the idea in mind that residents could have fresh flowers in their room at any time (they can choose to cut the flowers themselves or have a caretaker do it for them).

And, since these roses are easy to prune and don’t require chemical sprays or deadheading, they’re also easier to maintain for the growing number of residents that want to help with the gardens at these kinds of facilities. The residents also don’t have to be subjected to toxic chemical treatments.

Elements for “active living”.

Today’s aging population is much more active than its predecessors, and these individuals want to be outside, gardening, walking, reading and healing.

Even those in wheelchairs or motorized scooters want to take part – hence the need for raised beds for greater accessibility,  “workable” gardens (vegetables, herbs and cutting garden plots – one of Rolling Fields’ veggie plots pictured above), non-glare paving, lighting for evening use and heat and shelter for inclement weather.

Zaretsky and Associates, a Rochester, NY landscape design-build firm, which has done award-winning work in this area, regularly adds these new “musts.” It even incorporates active-living features like measured walking tracks (so residents can track their progress) and storage sheds for gardening tools and materials.

Plants for horticultural therapy.

Hospitals and other health-care centers are now recognizing that gardens are healing facilitators – as important as physical therapy, medications and other mainstream healing devices.

Zaretsky and Associates designs and builds pathways that incorporate increasingly difficult surfaces where seniors can “get their feet back” as they walk along peaceful paths. Even labyrinths, which foster meditation while walking, are a popular attraction.

Water features, with their peaceful sounds of running water and psychological association with life and tranquility, also provide auditory therapy. Rolling Fields residents love to gather at the koi ponds and waterfalls.

Beyond just creating an inspiring, peaceful environment that fosters healing, the plants themselves play a huge role in therapy gardens. Their texture, fragrance, sound – and even taste (as is the case with Rolling Fields, which has planted fruit trees) – help stimulate the senses and the mind-body connection.


Fragrant plants like herbs, roses and phlox (mildew-resistant purple Volcano phlox pictured here) are wonderful for evoking memories, especially in Alzheimer’s gardens. Sounds can be added with grasses that sway in the wind. And teachable moments can be created by adding plants historically used for medicinal purposes. At Rochester General Hospital in Rochester, NY, Zaretsky and Associates has incorporated echinacea, Joe Pye weed, yew (taxus) and witchhazel just for this purpose.

Bring the outdoors in.

Bringing landscaping, gardening and plants indoors – also called “interiorscaping” – has never been more popular, and that’s especially true at today’s health-care and senior living facilities. The public has become increasingly aware of recent studies showing how indoor plants not only filter allergens and pollutants from the air, but also pump out fresh oxygen, boosting energy levels and mood.

Rolling Fields, for instance, not only promotes the idea of bringing fresh flowers and plants into rooms – it has an indoor “planting” sunroom where elders can start their vegetable seeds or help take care of indoor plants.

While I’m sure such gardens and landscaping can never fully replace the gardens of home, I’m glad health-care and senior living centers are trying to move in that direction.

When it comes my time to make the difficult choice of moving out of my home, I hope I have the chance to enjoy and work in gardens and landscapes. There’s just something about being in nature and watching life happens that psychologically instills an attitude of life within those who experience it. And that’s what I want for my grandparents, too!

What about you? Do you have parents that have had to move to one of these facilities? Did they have to leave behind sentimental gardens and landscapes? If so, did the facility or community they moved to offer any gardens or landscaping to enjoy or work in?

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