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August 6, 2001

Therapy makes rehab a walk in the garden

By Erin Bacher & Bernice Guity


It’s a hodgepodge of plant life: roses, begonias, tomatoes, green beans, marigolds and azaleas. To the casual observer, it may seem like landscaping with a lack of direction. But to the intuitive spectator, it is a garden with a clear sense of purpose.

Behind the Center for Rehabilitation Medicine (CRM), a very special program is in full bloom. This is where patients practice therapeutic gardening. According to Donna Baker, supervisor for therapeutic recreation services for CRM, gardening is part of an interdisciplinary array of therapy techniques.

“Patients who engage in therapeutic gardening are practicing speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy—and often they don’t even realize it, because it’s something fun that doesn’t feel like therapy,” Baker said. “They are re-learning the skills for re-entry into the community and leisure activities. And they learn how to overcome architectural barriers at the same time.”

Baker added that therapeutic gardening offers psychosocial benefits as well. “Patients see they can still do things they enjoy, and they can regain that previous quality of life,” she said.
In some instances, patients use adaptive equipment (like a special grip on a shovel) to get the job done. The garden is specially designed with benches so those patients who are unable to stand for extended periods can sit while they work.

Baker said gardening helps strengthen muscles, improve fine motor skills, increase endurance and enhance dexterity. For those patients who are still recovering and cannot go outside, therapeutic gardening can even be brought to the bedside.

“Just seeing something growing gives patients a sense of optimism,” Baker said. “I’ve seen patients who are deeply depressed really pick up and regain confidence and self-esteem. They think,

‘Maybe I can do this again.’ One man even told me the garden was the first place he had seen his mother smile since her stroke.”

Some patients bring such a level of expertise to the garden that they leave indelible marks on it for future patients. Wynyard Smith is recovering from painful back surgery, but this member of the Georgia Botanical Society also is bringing an extensive wealth of knowledge to the CRM garden.

“Horticulture therapy is wonderful—even for people not into gardening,” Smith said. “It helps patients get their minds off their problems and focused on something growing.”

The CRM has even branched out by creating field trips that revolve around the garden. Patients travel to Pike Nurseries where they not only buy supplies for the garden, they also learn to deal with environmental challenges along the way.

Many patients even form a bond with the flowers they plant, Baker said, and come to check on the garden when they return for outpatient physical therapy.

Wesley Woods resident Connie Vaughan loves to water her flowers and watch them grow. In addition to the personal gratification she receives from gardening, Vaughan also is strengthening muscles and increasing her balance at the same time.

Vaughan is one of many patients in the horticultural therapy program at Wesley Woods. Founded in 1993, the program utilizes horticulture as a therapy in the clinical setting to help patients improve social, educational, psychological and physical aspects of their lives.

“Horticultural therapy utilizes the innate closeness we feel toward nature as a vehicle in professionally conducted therapy and rehabilitation,” said Kirk Hines, horticultural therapist at Wesley Woods.

The program, a component of the hospital’s rehabilitation services department, offers patients treatment sessions in the gardens, the greenhouse, the unit’s day area and at the bedside, Hines said.

Upon discharge, patients take home their seedlings, cuttings and transplants to continue the leisure interest that began or was reintroduced during their hospital stay.

According to Hines, the American Horticultural Therapy Association (AHTA) has helped horticultural therapy gain acceptance in hospitals across the country. Working with plants is helpful to patients with emotional and physical disabilities, he says. For example, stroke victims and patients with spinal cord or head injuries can strengthen muscle tone as they weed a garden or mist a plant with an atomizer. Patients with depression or other mood disorders can increase their activity level and self-esteem.

The physical structures include two courtyard gardens, a greenhouse, three fluorescent light units and an ambulation garden, which has a walking path for patients to practice safe maneuvering safely on uneven surfaces. The therapeutic courtyard gardens, located at the psychiatry and neuropsychiatry units, feature sitting- and standing-height planters, paved surfaces, a water garden and meditation spaces.

The glass greenhouse is designed specifically for horticultural therapy, with brushed concrete floors and wide aisles (for patients in walkers and wheelchairs), sitting- and standing-height benches, and a climate-control system for year-round comfort.

In the hospital’s rehabilitation and psychiatric units, portable fluorescent-light carts are used for indoor gardening to allow patients to nurture their product regardless of the weather.


Back to Emory Report August 6, 2001