Gardening for Seniors

Tending a garden can keep seniors physically fit and mentally sharp from their 60s into their 90s.
Tony and Dorothy Willott may be in their autumn years, but when their spectacular irises bloom at Cleveland’s Rockefeller Greenhouse, they’re as giddy as spring chickens.

Ever since his retirement from the U.S. Defense Department 20 years ago, Tony, 80, has maintained thousands of iris plants at the city of Cleveland greenhouse in Rockefeller Park. It’s among the best iris gardens in the country, made up of hundreds of varieties, thanks to the work of the Willotts, who reside in Beachwood.
More and more adults over 60 — some well into their 90s — are maintaining physical and mental health by gardening. Assisted-living facilities and nursing homes, aware of gardening’s health benefits, have set up a growing number of horticulture-therapy programs.
Horticulture therapy has been proven to relieve depression, help patients recover faster from illness or injury and lessen the need for medicine, says Carole Usaj, a horticultural therapist at The Gardens of McGregor in East Cleveland, which has had an award-winning gardening-therapy program for almost a decade.
“Gardening keeps people active on so many levels,” Usaj says. “I set social, cognitive, physical or emotional goals for patients. It’s an opportunity to feel useful and maintain upper-extremity strength.”
Gardening for almost two decades has kept Tony in better shape physically. “When I went to see the doctor, I complained about not being able to do a lot of things and slowing down,” Tony says. “He said, ‘I wish I had your health at your age!’ ”
The Willotts aren’t working on the irises as intensely as they did in the late 1980s. “I used to do three times the work in half the time!” Tony says. After two back surgeries and a broken ankle a year ago, gardening is harder for him. Dorothy, 76, who uses a walker due to severe arthritis, manages to pull some weeds and stays mentally vital by handling the paperwork for their iris hybridizing business. The Willotts spend a great deal of time crossing different species, or hybridizing, to create stronger, more beautiful and more colorful irises. The many new varieties they’ve registered include the First Lady Hope, named for Ohio’s former first lady, Hope Taft, and which is planted at the governor’s mansion and the Rockefeller Gardens.
To overcome the aches and pains of aging and continue gardening, Tony has come up with several strategies. “I’ve got three chairs out there that I spot conveniently around the garden, plus some benches and cushions because the chairs are hard,” he says.
Ingrid Lüders, 66, runs the Ohara School of Ikebana — Japanese flower arranging — out of her Hunting Valley home. She says she has also felt the effects of aging on her gardening and uses her own methods to adapt.
One tip she gives older gardeners: Use groundcovers whenever possible to replace grass. There’ll be less mowing needed, which will reduce the workload and the noise.
Just do a little bit every day to keep the gardens beautiful, adds Lüders, who grows bamboo, magnolias and rhododendrons on five acres surrounding her home.
“It’s not how old you are, it’s how healthy you are,” she says.
Usaj helps to keep McGregor’s residents healthy by using gardening as physical and mental therapy. She encourages residents to treat the 32 acres as their own home, allowing them to pick flowers from the gardens whenever they want. The facility also has its own greenhouse, a garden club and the popular Planting Partners program. Residents at all levels — from independent living and assisted living to the dementia unit and full nursing care — pair up with a relative, volunteer or employee to plant a pot that they design themselves. The partners fill a large container with plants, herbs or vegetables of their choice. The container can be set higher up, so it’s easy to reach for older people in wheelchairs or for those who can no longer bend to garden.
“In a nursing home, you don’t get a lot of choices,” Usaj explains. “But with Planting Partners, I let them pick their own plants and care for the pot. I’m always encouraging them to take care of something, because they’re always being taken care of.”
Usaj gives residents a choice of plants in bright colors, such as reds and yellows; reminiscent plants, such as geraniums and petunias, that take residents back mentally to their own gardens; and sensory plants such as African violets, with their soft, fuzzy leaves. She often uses peppermint-scented geraniums, which emit their scent when their soft leaves are rubbed. The scent can revive a sleepy elderly person. Certain scents can also awaken a patient’s appetite, so Usaj assigns plants and herbs with those scents to those who have refused food. Often, after cleaning, touching and caring for the plants or herbs every day before a meal, residents will eat more.
“Gardening even works well with dementia patients,” Usaj explains. “People don’t forget how to hold a watering can. The minute you put a watering can in someone’s hand, they know to tip it. Give them a trowel, and they will start digging.”
Some residents have overcome depression without medicine just by getting to the greenhouse daily to work with plants, Usaj says. The sun coming through provides a boost of vitamin D, while the green of the oxygen-emitting plants is calming.
The sense of purpose that comes with creating a garden and caring for it benefits older adults, she says. While women tend to prefer flowers, men enjoy growing vegetables, so they can share produce in late summer.

Lüders, who has taught ikebana for 35 years, is still impressed by how it keeps her older students mentally vital and creative. “People don’t realize how much energy you get from nature, be it physical energy or spiritual strength,” she says.

And she realizes how she benefits from it as well. “It’s an art form, so it’s never-ending,” she says. “You can always learn something.” 
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