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2012 Issue 3: LIFESTYLE

Volunteer in Healing Gardens for Improved Recovery

Stroke survivors unearth the healing power of plants

By Lisa Pogue

The year-round horticultural therapy program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Oregon at Legacy is booming, with garden volunteers reaping health benefits that range from lowered blood pressure to improved motor skills.

Healing gardens have been around since ancient times and it’s widely known that gardening is a natural spirit-lifting de-stressor. But horticultural therapy, or patients seeking treatment through therapist-led gardening, is a fairly new idea, says Dr. Teresia Hazen, Therapeutic Gardens and Horticultural Therapy Coordinator at Legacy Health.

Healing gardens are popping up at hospitals and rehabilitation facilities around the country. “There is such universal appeal and meaningful activity in nature and gardens,” says Hazen. To benefit from healing gardens, stroke survivors can volunteer for garden duties or current patients can enroll in more structured therapeutic programs.

Hazen oversees multiple therapeutic gardens at several medical centers and works with patients recovering from stroke, brain injuries and motor vehicle accidents, along with those with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. Horticultural therapy is credited for exercising hands, fingers and arms, building stamina and coordination and stimulating attention span.

“Everyone has their own personal blend of rewards,” says Dr. Marie Valleroy of Legacy Health. “Many of us, disabled or not, are not geared toward working out for fitness. But if we can improve strength, balance, flexibility, memory, organization and more while we are enjoying ourselves and possibly yielding homegrown tomatoes as well...gardening is a truly elegant form of therapy.”

Horticulture therapy can be an indoor activity as well. Patients gather around tables for gardening activities such as starting plants from cuttings and researching growth patterns. “They’re just so amazed they can be sitting in the hospital doing gardening,” Hazen says.

Gardening supports continued stroke recovery, health maintenance and quality of life, she adds. Stroke survivors learn skills they can take home for continued rehab even after inpatient therapies have ended. It’s all about learning adaptive strategies, building strength and endurance, improving balance and memory, and problem solving.

Hazen recommends horticultural therapy patients keep a three-ring binder with monthly tabs where ideas and notes can be recorded and pouches can store plant tags. “Write daily or weekly journal notes for each month to keep a record of your activities and plans,” she says.

Hazen also recommends checking with your physician before resuming gardening or beginning new gardening activity after any health issue.

To find a healing garden near you, call or email the volunteer department at a local hospital, nursing home or assisted living facility and ask about their volunteer program for garden care. Be sure to let the volunteer director know if you prefer to work with another person, a small team or alone. There are many tasks to be done year-round.

It’s important to learn about the requirements before making a commitment, Hazen says. Hospitals typically need volunteers to make a commitment of one year with a weekly four-hour shift.

Healing Gardens at a Glance

Here are some techniques you might see in therapeutic gardens:

  • Wide, gently graded wheelchair-accessible entrances and paths
  • Raised beds and containers for ease of access
  • Adapting the use of tools to turn a disability into an ability
  • Sensory-stimulation environments with plants selected for fragrance, texture and color
  • Utilizing accessible greenhouses that bring the garden indoors for year-round enjoyment

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