Home-Grown Healing

WHEELING – The garden at Peterson Rehabilitation Hospital, a horticultural getaway full of herbs, native flowers, butterflies, shade trees and the sound of moving water, is more than just a beautiful space for the residents of the hospital. It is actually healing them.

The Ohio County Master Gardeners has created a small “Eden” on the Peterson facility as a therapeutic space for the aging patients.

“It’s very beautiful,” hospital resident LaRue Bruce said. “It’s nice to be able to sit under the pavilion with the fans going. You can wander around the garden. It’s wonderful.”

The quarter-acre garden was originally created as an outside space residents could enjoy, but over the years the project has evolved into a therapy program that integrates patients’ treatment goals and helps improve their functions and abilities.

“One of things we wanted to do for the residents since it’s primarily designed for their use was to integrate as much interest and sensory input as possible,” Clare McDonald, president of the Ohio County Master Gardeners, explained. “The idea of different colors, continuous flowering, different shaped plants, trying to have sensory input such as touch – another thing was having the water feature, having the sound of water, the sound of bird song and just creating an entirely different atmosphere than from the building. Though there’s a lot of things going on in there, this creates an arena for patients to have that sensory input.”

The first feature to be constructed in the garden was the raised beds of herbs and flowers that sit at a height that enables patients using wheelchairs and walkers to easily tend to the plants. McDonald said patients can do tasks such as deadheading plants or refilling the hummingbird feeder, which are beneficial to both the patient and the garden.

Betsy Myers, an occupational therapist at Peterson, said therapists work with patients to practice standing tolerance, endurance and range of motion as well as cognition, or being able to process the task and do things in the right sequence – all of which can be practiced by working in the garden. She said the hospital’s Alzheimer’s patients have especially benefited from working in the garden.

“They may have difficulty with thought processes, but something as simple as gardening is from their past. It’s ingrained in them, and they can pick it right up and do something,” Myers said. “So they may not be able to do something that a therapist is asking them to do, but they can get their hands dirty, they can play with the plants, work with the vegetables. Things they’ve done for their whole lives come right back to them when they get out in that space.”

The garden also serves as an emotional and creative space for patients. Residents engage in what is called a “garden stroll,” which is a sensory stimulation activity where patients experience the living things that surround them by feeling, looking at and smelling the herbs and flowers and talking about their purposes.

“We’ve never had a patient turn us down,” Myers said. “To go outside and get fresh air and to play in the garden, I think they think they’re cheating and skipping therapy. But we actually are giving them all the things they need to get better, but doing it in a way that they find rewarding.”

The garden was created in 2007 with grant money secured through the Community Foundation for the Ohio Valley. Later, the West Virginia Agrability Green Thumbs/Healthy Joints Program provided support through a mini-grant and a set of ergonomic hand tools. The West Virginia Bureau of Public Health and the Center for Excellence in Disabilities at West Virginia University is working to secure a $10,000 grant to address the benefits of therapeutic gardening.

The program will be monitored by certified therapists with treatment plans, goals and objectives that will be measured and reported.

“They are going to take a select population and they’ll take their vital statistics before they come out here, then they bring them out to do gardening tasks with the ergonomic tools, deadheading or watering. They’ll do a task based on the patient’s ability, and then they’ll take them back in and take their vital statistics,” Ingram said.

The therapeutic gardening program has the potential to improve patients’ physical movements, their sensory input, cognitive skills and social skills.

Ingram said about 500 people come to visit the garden every year, and it takes 800 volunteer hours a year to maintain the outside space. The garden is divided into several mini-gardens including the West Virginia native plant garden, the butterfly garden, the shade garden, an herb garden and a new rose and peony garden, among others, that are maintained by volunteers.

“That’s one of the marks of this garden is that it’s such a wonderful microclimate, because things just take off here. It may be partly that the concrete blocks retain heat in the summer and into the later months in the year, and that helps create this microclimate,” McDonald said. “All this garden gets a lot of attention from master gardeners and other folks who come in to enjoy the garden.”

“I think it’s just a great spot for families and patients. They have birthday parties out here, they can visit out here when the weather cooperates,” Ingram said. “I think it’s just a wonderful solace for them to be able to enjoy, and that’s basically why we do what we do for the patients. You can just see them enjoying it when you’re out here working, and that’s, to me, worth it.”