Horticultural Therapy Cultivates Healing and Hope for Seniors

January 14, 2020 by


This post is contributed by Canadian horticultural therapist, Bianca van der Stoel. Horticultural therapists are educated in plant science, human science, horticultural therapy principles and have experience in the application of horticultural therapy practices. 

The first time Luella and I took a walk, she closed her eyes, tilted her face up to the sunshine, then spoke just one word, “lovely.” As I led her through the garden, she relaxed, breathing in the scent of the damp earth and pointing out the sound of seagulls in the distance. With eyes closed, Luella shared something we may all intrinsically know, “nature is absolutely perfect in all its ways.”


Developing a relationship with Luella has been one of the most impactful moments of my relatively new career as a horticulture therapist. She lives at Eden Gardens, a not-for-profit dementia care community in Nanaimo, BC. The facility includes 14 separate garden spaces available to the elders. Luella has severe rheumatoid arthritis that affects her voice, hands, and her ability to walk. She sits in a wheelchair every day, unable to move without help.

Due to her difficulty speaking clearly, it took me some time to discover which horticulture activity Luella would be most drawn to–until a staff person shared with me that she used to love going outside for walks. I have heard elders say things like, “Thank you for bringing the outside in,” and “It feels like you brought a piece of the forest to me.” I am humbled by the simple joy nature provides my clients.


Luella knows that I will always prioritize an opportunity for her to spend time outdoors, and when she sees me she simply says, “Walk.” At times, she’ll direct the stroll, uttering words like “tomatoes” to guide me to the vegetable garden or “fish” to guide me to the garden. She has asked me to take her to the covered entrance on rainy days so she can watch the rain. She is always drawn to ferns, making me wonder if she grew up near the many fern glades of Vancouver Island. I have not yet been able to hold a long conversation with her, but somehow, I feel like she and I have connected many times over through the wonders of the garden.


For our elders, disease or circumstance sometimes creates a barrier to their enjoyment of nature and the outdoors. Health care communities supporting seniors with memory challenges, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia, are consistently understaffed, lack access to appropriate mobility devices, and have poorly designed architecture that makes it difficult for seniors to easily and safely get outside.


Horticulture therapists are among many professionals trying to improve care and quality of life for seniors. We use natural materials and horticulture tasks to meet a patient’s health goals. Therapists design and facilitate various gardening programs to generate socializing, spontaneity, or relaxation.


A patient exposed to this therapy may experience a sense of control, contribution, or creativity in the garden, along with an overflowing list of other benefits. The study of biophilia holds that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. Have you ever felt this intrinsic pull to nature, and do you believe it will fade as you age?


At Eden Gardens, we recently led a Tabletop Forest Walk, an indoor activity in which residents laid a stone pathway and designed a small forest using twigs, moss, and seed heads on a tabletop. As we worked, one elder began reminiscing: “I used to have a forest up behind my house. I would run there to sulk, or to escape, or to just be.” Another responded: “We may not be in the forest, but this is the next best thing…I remember the smell, and the sounds­­–there is always a sound in the forest even when it seems quiet.” When I walked away that evening, I hoped these seniors were left contemplating the paths they used to stroll, the details of the forest, and the peace they felt as they stood among the towering trees.


Imagine a life without blossoms. Or one without walking beneath tall trees in the forest, without hearing birds singing in the morning, or without that feeling of your hands digging in the cool, rich soil. It’s a human need and a human right. As one patient recently told me, “I’m grieving the loss of my husband, and I’m grieving the way my body feels now. And at this point, life is about waiting for the next blossom.”


To each and every one of you out there, I encourage you to continue being drawn to the forest, or to that plant in the corner of your office, or into your garden with your morning cup of coffee to experience what has bloomed. Nobody is ever too old for nature.

Bianca van der Stoel is a horticulture therapist and certified recreation therapist in British Columbia, Canada.  You can earn more on her website and also follow her on Instagram @bvhorticulturetherapy. All images courtesy of the author.



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