Flower power of a different sort
Sure, flowers smell heavenly and add colour to any setting. But flowers can also have powerful therapeutic value, especially for seniors and those who are troubled or uncommunicative.
Just look at the flowers! We had them in our garden, remember? What are they? lilies? No, no, tulips. Such beautiful tulips...!”
These words were more than Mother had spoken in one stretch in over a week. What’s more, her eyes were sparkling as she admired the spring flowers. And for me, her only child, it felt like a miracle.
When she moved into Bethania Mennonite Personal Care Home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as full-time resident, Mother was alert and aware. She had a great sense of humour and loved to laugh.
During my initial visits, when I’d asked, “How’s it going, Mom?” she would smile mischievously, shrug, and say, “Slow ….” That was my cue to add, “But steady, right?” And then we’d burst into giggles.
Yet when I visited Mother again six weeks later, her cognitive and physical strength had declined to the extent that she had few words for me, and no giggles.
According to statistics I’ve seen, 50-60 per cent of individuals admitted to personal care homes do not survive much beyond two years. Depression and its weakening effect on the immune system is cited among the major causes of death.
With this in mind, I took Mother into Bethania’s gardens one beautiful spring afternoon. At the time, I knew nothing about the therapeutic value of gardens; I just hoped a breath of fresh air and sunlight might help Mother to feel more “up” again. And I was amply rewarded.
Within minutes, her eyes were sparkling as they always had when they lit on something beautiful, and her voice grew lively. Before long, she seemed her old self again, chatting with me and with others around her. Not surprisingly, we spent as much time as possible in Bethania’s gardens after that day, and over time it became obvious to me that Mother was not alone in her reactions.
Since then, I’ve observed virtually non-verbal and unresponsive individuals smile and comment on the beauty of flowers, sample fruit in a raspberry patch, exclaim over the growth of vegetables planted by residents, laugh at the antics of baby wild rabbits scurrying among bushes and flowers, watch young birds learn to fly, spot goldfish in the stream, and so much more. Some look downright happy as they re-connect with their environment and the people in it. And if that is not therapeutic value, then what is?
Nature’s therapeutic – and restorative – quality is not a new concept; nearly every civilization in history has developed it in one form or another. The western world, for instance, had the arcaded restorative gardens of hospitals and monasteries in the Middle Ages, followed by the 17th-18th century emphasis on fresh air and cross ventilation to prevent contagion in pavilion hospitals, and the late 18th-19th century belief that nature heals body and soul.
Early 20th century medicine prescribed sunlight and fresh air to help cure illness. Moreover, parks and wilderness preserves were created to promote public exposure to nature in order to lessen the stresses of urban living and to increase psychological well-being and physical health. Even today, many public institutions such as hospitals, schools, museums and universities – Queen’s among them – are set amidst park-like surroundings.
Proponents of therapeutic gardens point to mounting scientific evidence supporting their arguments that gardens and gardening have therapeutic restorative value. But for me, the strongest evidence is seeing my mother and her peers reconnect with life as they embrace Nature’s wonders.
Over the years, family and friends, recreation staff and volunteers have helped Mother to enjoy frequent garden visits, and she remains alert and emotionally ‘up’ most days. At times she even seems stronger now, at age 96, than she was when she moved into the retirement home more than three years ago. That’s “therapy success” in my books!
But what about rainy days and winter months, you ask? That’s when Mother and I enjoy the common room with its huge pyramidal skylight. The space is filled with over-sized pots of indoor trees and other greenery (though no flowers), a huge populated bird cage, an aquarium where the goldfish that spend their summers in the garden pond grow fat in winter, and two cats fed well enough to not be tempted by the birds and fish. Here Mother and I drink coffee, enjoy treats, and talk about life “back then,” and now. The setting is not quite as therapeutic as the outdoors garden (especially in terms of our waist-lines), but it is still good for cognitive alertness and the soul.