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Horticulture and Memory: Planting the Seeds of Well-Being
Ruth MacCarthy

By: Ruth MacCarthy on June 27th, 2024

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Horticulture and Memory: Planting the Seeds of Well-Being

Health & Aging  |  Cathedral Village  |  Memory Care

The evidence supporting Horticulture Therapy is as compelling as it is heartening. A growing body of research consistently demonstrates that the interaction between people and plants promotes well-being in older adults. Horticulture Therapy has been shown to enhance quality of life, reduce apathy, and improve cognitive function in those living with dementia. A recent pilot randomized controlled trial, led by Yi Yang from Taizhou University's Department of Nursing, further underscores the unique value of Horticulture Therapy in memory care settings.

Ruth MacCarthy, our dedicated horticulturist at Cathedral Village, has witnessed firsthand the remarkable benefits of Horticulture Therapy for our residents. Through her expertise and passion, she has created a nurturing environment where individuals can engage with plants, participate in horticultural activities, and immerse themselves in the restorative power of nature. She shares her experiences below.

The Benefits of Gardening: The Natural Environment and Plant-based Programs.

Our greenhouse is located next to our Health Center. Trees and gardens surround it. There is a pergola and a gazebo. It offers them a safe place, free from judgement. The plants respond the same to everyone whether ambulatory or in a wheelchair. Let’s briefly look at the benefits of passive involvement with nature. One study shows that just having a view of nature is beneficial. How great is it to be in nature?

Therapeutic horticulture for the memory care population focuses on the senses: touch, sight, smell, a sense of belonging/purpose and a sense of humor. It brings a sense of well-being by raising self-esteem. It provides a venue by which the resident becomes the caregiver rather than the cared for. It offers the resident an opportunity to make their own choices in an environment that often offers few options. Having a background in teaching, my sessions always come with questions and observations for my participants. Our memory care population thanks me for coming after every visit.

Hands of senior woman holding aloe plantThe sense of touch: All plants have something unique about the way the feel to the touch. The leaves could be fuzzy or plump and hard. They could have toothed or smooth edges. The top could feel different from the bottom. The stem could be square or round, fuzzy or smooth. The flower petals could be soft and the center prickly. Our memory care population loves to hold and touch the plants: Let me see it they say. I ask them if they know the plant or if they have ever grown the plant. Some remember having a garden or growing up on a farm. Some remember the name of the plant.

The sense of sight: Many flowering plants are brightly colored or uniquely shaped. This is how they attract pollinators. I ask the group, why do flowers attract pollinators? What happens after a flower is pollinated? What does the flower produce? I may get the correct answer; a seed. Whatever the answer is, it is never a wrong answer. Just tweak it a bit. Here is a question that has no wrong answer: What is your favorite color?

Some leaves and berries are brightly colored. Who cares about the flower, is what I say. Look at these wonderful colors on the leaves of our coleus. Look at how the Magnolia leaves have a different color on the top than on the bottom. Imagine what they look like blowing in the breeze. Look at the bright red berries on the Winterberry. What’s inside the berry (fruit)? Does the male or the female plant develop berries?

Many seeds have unique attributes. I once took a milkweed pod to our memory care neighborhood. Milkweed pods are large and prickly and when ripe they open to reveal seeds with small plumes much like a dandelion seed. These seeds spread by the wind or by attaching themselves onto something. It’s fun to blow them around the room and try to catch them or have them land on someone’s sweater.

Senior Woman Smelling Yellow FlowersThe sense of smell: No matter what type of plant or branch I bring to our memory care residents, most of them want to smell it. Not all flowers have a smell. Sometimes a cut branch emits an odor. Evergreen branches are a great example of this. Did you decorate during the holidays? Does this branch smell like Christmas? Did you have a live tree when you were growing up?

Scented geraniums and herbs have wonderfully scented stems and leaves. Many residents no longer have a strong sense of smell so the more fragrant the plant is the better chance our resident will be able to detect it. Our residents renamed a Geranium called Fair Ellen to Smelly Ellie. She’s not so popular with the group. It’s not difficult to tell what a resident think about a particular scent by the expression on their face.

Herbs are great because they have a strong odor and we cook with them. memory care residents often remember a favorite food or smell. The sense of smell is directly tied to the limbic system in our brains, the same system that relates to memory and evokes emotion. The smell of lilac flowers often stirs up memories of the past. Did you have lilacs in your home?

A sense of humor: Did you cook with herbs? What else do you do with herbs besides cooking? Answer from a memory care resident, smoke them. On another occasion, I brought along a mint plant. I was trying to get the group to identify the plant by its smell. I asked, what do you put in your iced tea with lemon in the summer? memory care answer, gin. On a different occasion, I brought a milkweed seedpod to show the group. What is inside the pod? The answer “My mother in law”. I said she must have been very tiny to fit inside the pod. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Our memory care residents love the natural world and are very curious about insects. I did a session on entomology. Does anyone know what entomology is? Entomology is the study of ...? memory care resident: horses ma’am. Close, it’s the study of insects.

Senior Man and Senior Woman Potting Plants in a GreenhosueA sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. I may do a hands-on activity with our memory care group. It could be packaging seeds, sowing seeds, sticking cuttings or repotting plants for one of our plant sales. This is a way to have the group be a part of the whole population. At the sale, they may purchase a plant that they can give to someone to show them gratitude or they may take care of it on a windowsill in their room. Should something go awry, I do make house calls.

The plant sales are open to all residents, staff and visitors. I love hosting them and they are truly a great social event for our campus. Many of our residents don’t see each other as often. One may have moved to our Health Care center from their apartment. It gives staff an opportunity to meet new residents as well.

What I like best about working with our memory care residents is the time I spend with them is “in the moment”. It’s a wonderful place to be.

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About Ruth MacCarthy

Ruth has worked with residents residing in the Memory Care unit at Cathedral Village for the last 11 years. She also has provided therapeutic horticulture to the entire resident population throughout her tenure with the community. Along with her resident programs, Ruth works with Cathedral’s Director of Environmental Services to oversee the 38-acre campus and manage a 2,800-square-foot greenhouse. She is currently consulting with a sister community, Ware Presbyterian Village, as they plan a tranquility garden on their campus. Ruth has a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture from Temple University and has worked as a horticulturist for 35 years. She has been an instructor for both credit and non-credit programs at the Temple University Ambler campus.