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The garden as refuge for hospice caregivers

By Valerie Hartman

For the past 40 weeks, I have been driving my car down a tree lined avenue, parking on a side street, and walking up to Mike’s door. I pass a small pond garden in the front yard, the water sounds capture my attention and I slow my step, pause at the trickle of water for a deep breath. Mike’s wife gardens, she looks to the calming influences of nature to find refuge – a place to relax her nervous system, reflect on life, and establish order during a time of change. Admittedly she has much less time to tend to the garden this year, so she finds ways to bring the natural elements from the outside, in. The environment of the home is designed around principles of Feng Shui; she uses color, sound, light, and uncluttered space to maintain a restful environment.

Mike’s wife loves the Japanese gardens at Fairmont Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She describes a past visit there as if she was participating in her own personal guided imagery. When I asked her what gardening offers her in the midst of caregiving, and grieving a recent loss of her mother, she shared this: “When I am planting or taking care of my plants, it is an escape for my mind. I am only thinking about them. I smell them, look at the beautiful colors, they are uplifting and refreshing… When you cultivate a garden or work with houseplants, there is a certain feeling that you get watching them grow and bloom. There is a prize at the end. In the middle of chaos and sadness it only takes one bloom to make your heart smile. My hydrangeas make me the happiest.” In the practical sense, she states that gardening at home provides an escape without having to leave the house. It is something she can do for herself, something that she loves and ‘wants to do’ amidst a day that feels like, ‘have to do’s’.

Horticulture Therapy

How can plant life and gardening help in times of stress?  Help calm emotions?  Support grief?

Horticulture therapy has its roots in psychology. The American Horticulture Therapy Association refers to history going back to Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and “Father of American Psychiatry”, who reported that garden settings held curative effects for the mind. The garden is a refuge of symbolism to reflect upon. The action of gardening quiets and focuses the mind to bring the nervous system to a calm state, and it is pleasant and nurturing.

Sally Cobb, horticulture therapist forBeacon Place, a residential hospice unit affiliated with Hospice and Palliative Care of Greensboro inNorth Carolina, developed an innovative horticultural therapy program.  She shared some practical insights into the use of the garden in hospice through bereavement in an article entitled:

Natural connections: Therapy gardens help people stay active, cope with health problems .

In the article, Sally suggests a few meaningful projects that anyone can do at home:

  • Create a meaningful garden. This can be done in a variety of ways. “Take a look at what you already have in your yard and add a little to it.”  She suggests adding a rock with a special engraving or a swing to make the garden interactive.
  • Touch all the senses. A wind chime or water may add a soothing sound, while smells may also promote relaxation. She states, “Pick a smell that brings back a pleasant memory.” Sally mentions a few of her favorite plants including lemon thyme, rosemary and clerodendrum, which smells like peanut butter.
  • Add plants that encourage touch. Sally adds plants to the garden that can encourage touch, like the lamb’s ear in the Hospice garden, which has downy soft leaves. She sees symbolism in the lamb’s ear- that of the love and care provided to those who are ill and grieving.

As our long summer days continue, reflect on how plants, flowers, or gardening might provide you with a renewed sense of well being and relaxation. Consider bringing the outside indoors, walking amidst nature in a park, or taking some time to tend to your garden. You’ll nurture yourself as you nurture your garden.

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