Guest Columns

4 reasons to consider horticulture therapy as an alternative treatment

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Ruth MacCarthy
Ruth MacCarthy

Many health professionals agree that getting seniors active, moving and social is a key element in successful aging.

At Cathedral Village, a continuing care retirement community, we've seen significant, long-term benefits in our health center because of horticulture therapy. The fully-automated, 2,800 square-foot greenhouse offers a safe space outside of a clinical setting, for residents to engage in activities that increase self-esteem, decrease depression, reduce overall healthcare costs and offer an opportunity for socialization. It provides an avenue for residents in a long-term care setting to be a productive part of the community.

As director of horticulture, I am committed to investing in research-based therapy outside of a clinical setting. Residents are invited to engage in therapeutic horticultural activities, such as growing and harvesting herbs and vegetables that are grown for the kitchen to use.

Here are four reasons why long-term care communities should consider offering residents horticulture therapy:

1. Provides a unique therapeutic modality

Gardening can be used as an alternative to occupational or physical therapy. It can be especially useful to improve both fine and gross motor skills and improve core strength and balance. Getting residents out of the clinical environment and give their movements purpose can help produce better health outcomes.

2. Helps with memory and depression

Horticulture therapy has been shown to help those with dementia and other cognitive impairments to recall memory. Herbs and fragrant flowers are especially helpful as the sense of smell is connected to the limbic system in our brain which affects memory and mood. Getting your hands dirty can relieve stress and serve as a great mood booster.

3. Can help shorten healing time and reduce need for medication

Horticulture therapy and gardening offer not only a natural setting, but also a means for respite. A study by R.S. Ulrich showed that a view of nature has restorative influences. The study also showed that 23 patients that had a view of nature recovered from surgery in a shorter period of time, took less medication and had less negative comments than 23 patients who had a window facing a brick wall. Alternative therapies also help to reduce the need for medications, in turn lowering overall healthcare costs in the community

4. Helps build community and a sense of purposeful living

Horticulture therapy programs offer a means for residents of all care levels to be a part of the community as a whole. Flower arranging is a great way to build community and a sense of purpose. Participating residents can have their arrangements on display in common areas for all to enjoy or they could give an arrangement to another resident of staff member. Residents that discover new social connections experience an overall better quality of life through increased mental and physical health and cognitive functioning and purposeful living.

Yes, horticulture therapy can be beautiful, but it is designed for some important work.

Growing and arranging flowers and cultivating greens allows them to practice real tasks that are used in everyday life. With this, seniors maintain their dignity and increase their ability to function more independently. Residents are empowered to lead more stimulating, fulfilled and enriched lives by identifying activities that challenge and motivate them physically, socially, and intellectually. 

Ruth MacCarthy is the director of horticulture at Cathedral Village.

Guest Columns

Guest columns are written by long-term care industry experts, ranging from academics and thought leaders to administrators and CEOs.