Gardening provides therapy for Alzheimer’s patients

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Garden section on Friday, December 2, 2005)

By Becky Homan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch Garden Editor

Memories are made of this

Nearly all of the senses, but especially touch, smell and sight, get used in some of the newer cognitive therapies for Alzheimer’s.
Nearly all of the senses, but especially touch, smell and sight, get used in some of the newer cognitive therapies for Alzheimer’s.

Eugene Olevitch remembers the days when his mother “could look at soil, and it would start growing something.”

“She came from Romania,” he explains. “She was a little gal. My father came from Poland. He was never much of a gardener.”

But Olevitch turned out to be one, at least in his youth in St. Louis. He helped his mother put in tomatoes, helped her with the harvest and watched her can the fruit for good eating throughout winter.

Now, at age “80 something,” he says, Olevitch still dabbles in the soil.

But that takes place in a sunny “greenhouse” classroom that’s part of regular cognitive therapy for Alzheimer’s patients at Parc Provence, a licensed dementia demonstration project and residential community in Creve Coeur.

He and some 120 other Alzheimer’s patients live there.

Gardening and Alzheimer’s often get linked at this nearly two-year-old site.

“I have to say that gardening’s fairly new, at least in long-term care,” says Dr. David Carr, Parc Provence medical director, as well as associate professor of medicine in Washington University’s division of geriatrics.

“And I have no scientific proof,” he adds, “but based on my personal experience and the literature, these types of activities can help maintain cognitive ability over time.”

Cooking, singing, dancing and frequent walks on pathways around the grounds are some of the other things residents do.

Indeed, on this particular weekday afternoon – as Indian summer is refusing to give up the warmth that’s enveloping this facility and its outdoor gardens – Olevitch is up and watering a sunny windowsill full of orchids and other blooming houseplants.

“I don’t mind this a bit,” he says as he angles a watering can into the foliage. “I like it. It takes me back to the old times.”

Nearby, resident Claire Rehm is helping to pass around a series of pictures of beautiful gardens.

One image is full of Dutch bulbs.

“Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” she sings at the top of her voice, then laughs.

“What’s the next line?” a member of the group asks Shelly McGuire, the activities director.

“Oh, heavens, I don’t know,” McGuire answers. “How does it go, Claire?”

And Rehm launches into a rousing next chorus.

Gardening helps these men and women with dementia, McGuire says, if they get “the long-term result – that they remember they planted something.”

“I get the impression,” says Carr, “that for many seniors, gardening’s been a lifelong passion. Then, boom! They get institutionalized and can’t participate in what they used to do. And that’s a huge loss.”

Rehm was “not particularly” a gardener early in life, she announces after the greenhouse class. She’s sitting next to a walker that’s decked out in artificial flowers. She’s taped them on, she says, smiling, “so that I can find this. I have to take it everywhere, or someone has a fit.”

Her reaction to the tabletop gardening session also brings out a razor-sharp wit: “Oh, sweetheart, when you’re at this stage of life,” she says, “you’re glad to do anything, go anywhere.”

But she quickly adds that she likes the fresh plants and the lovely garden photos she’s just seen, “because it’s life, really,” she says. “It’s life. Things are growing, and that means that things are good.”

Some patients in early-stage Alzheimer’s even take care of their own container plants in the Parc Provence courtyard gardens that they have access to. They go with helpers, or on their own if they can manage the gates and security punch pads.

“We do some seed planting,” McGuire says, “but that’s more for early-stage Alzheimer’s, for someone who’ll know about following the progression from seed to plant.”

Middle-stage patients, she says, get “a lot of sensory involvement,” with once-a-week stimulation of hands in potting soil or the passing around of scented flowers and other garden fragrances.

Parc Provence, at 605 Coeur de Ville Drive, is not the only dementia facility doing garden work around town.

Carr cites “a very aggressive gardening program” at Alexian Brothers Community Services in south St. Louis.

And indeed, a check with the Pace Program there finds Jamie Choler, a certified recreational therapist there for more than a year. She’s also an avid gardener.

Not all of Choler’s nonresident, daytime visitors have Alzheimer’s, she says. But the ones who do seem to like helping Choler dry fragrant herbs. They’re planning soon to force bulbs into bloom. And sometimes, in good weather, they work in raised beds outside.

The program, at 3900 South Grand Boulevard, doesn’t have a lot of space, Choler says. “A little greenhouse on wheels with a light on top” makes the rounds indoors, she says. “It is a very successful activity.”

So is having a fragrant jasmine plant.

“The scents bring back a lot of memories” for members of her dementia group, she says, “and make them less agitated. It’s a relaxing thing and real familiar.”

Back at Parc Provence, resident Mary O’Rourke looks thoroughly determined to do the best job possible of gently pushing pansy transplants into soil. After her greenhouse class, she gives the activity a lukewarm rating of “nice.”

“Mostly, I like to feel like I’m helping,” she says. “I like walking outside,” where the scenery includes courtyard gardens with different themes and designs, by the landscape firm Lewisites Inc.

“And when I see dead blossoms,” O’Rourke says, “I snatch them off.”

This is yet another weekday afternoon, and the Parc Provence residents are gathering for a singalong.

A recent visitor happens by, and none of the greenhouse gardeners seems to recall having met her the week before.

But that may be because they’re caught up in song.

Solo, Eugene Olevitch belts out a remarkable rendition of “Oh My Darling Clementine.” His jaunty mesh baseball cap adds to the performance.

He finishes to great applause.

The staff, meanwhile, is abuzz about some other very good news.

They’ve just learned that Carr – the medical director – has received a grant from the Longer Life Foundation at Washington U. With it, he’ll conduct a study focusing on “the benefits of late-life activities,” Carr says.

He’ll collect data over the next year and, in a second phase, “compare it to the average nursing home,” he says. “If we do find a better way to take care of Alzheimer’s patients, then we’ll have to decide what parts of our program we could parcel off and take to other facilities.”

Gardening is just one component.

Others, especially socializing, are key.

“I can’t go so far in science as to say that gardening improves a patient’s cognition,” Carr says again. “But I do think it can maintain cognition. And it certainly assists in improving the quality of life.” 314-340-8238

Copyright 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.