A garden can be transformative for your mood: they’re tranquil, therapeutic, and can often feel like an outdoor home. In metropolitan areas, however, gardens can be few and far between. Some older adults may find it difficult to access gardens, too, meaning they’re unable to reap the benefits of planting, harvesting, and enjoying nature.
That’s why Chicago Methodist Senior Services created the new Urban Sensory Garden at Wesley Place: to bring the therapeutic benefits of a garden to older adults in their own community. So, what is this new program, where did it get its roots and how is it impacting residents?
What is the Urban Sensory Garden?
The Urban Sensory Garden is a collective effort by volunteers, organizations and seniors to create a unique experience in the Chicagoland senior community. It stems from the Bringing Art to Life (BATL) program, which brings art therapy and social interaction to seniors with Alzheimer’s disease. BATL was developed by Cognitive Dynamics Foundation Founder and President, Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, in memory of his father, Lester E. Potts, Jr., an artist who had Alzheimer’s disease. The program came to Chicago — BATL-C — introducing area high school students to the curricula and incorporating STEM programming with the arts, to lead to a dynamic STEAM curriculum. Our curriculum continues to expand this year under the guidance of Amanda Narkis. M2, a Rush medical student, who submitted and was awarded a Rush Dean’s Award grant to expand the offerings of BATL-C to include an Urban Sensory Garden.
Our freshly-planted outdoor space gives seniors the opportunity to plant, touch, smell, water and harvest the vegetables and plants. Thanks to The Memory Farm, Gethsemane Garden Center and BATL-C the patio at Wesley Place is now home to more than a dozen unique plants. Older adults are immersed in lavender, rosemary, peppermint geranium, hot Portugal peppers and much more.
Where did the Urban Sensory Garden get its roots?
BATL-C began as a program providing volunteer students and patients art therapy in addition to experiencing reality simulations of how Alzheimer’s affects the body through its work with Embodied Labs. It quickly evolved: with the second variation of the program pairing volunteers with seniors to create life memoirs through art scrapbooks. The third evolution included partnering with several organizations to create the Urban Sensory Garden, where seniors spend time outdoors with student volunteers and create art based on that experience. The volunteers make scrapbooks of the older adults’ artwork and present it to the seniors at the end of the program. Inspiration for this third variation was drawn from The Memory Farm, (MF) a care-providing community in Elburn, Illinois, which offers seniors with Alzheimer’s a welcoming community and farm-based activities.
Dr. Neelum T. Aggarwal, MD, a cognitive neurologist at Rush University and BATL-C faculty lead, toured The Memory Farm and saw this as an opportunity to partner with the MF founders and fellow Rush University colleague, Dr. Debra Fleischman and Johanna Jameson, MA, LCPC. After touring the MF and seeing a Country Sensory Garden, Dr. Aggarwal wondered, “How could we bring a slice of rural life to Wesley Place that would enhance the BATL-C programming?”
The Urban Sensory Garden was developed in collaboration with the MF, and incorporated some of the same plants grown on the Elburn property while also obtaining plants from the landmark community based Gethsemane Garden Center. Gethsemane Garden Center lent their expertise and the result is a beautiful, colorful and inspiring garden for CMSS seniors to enjoy.
How is it making an impact in CMSS communities?
Residents, family members, volunteers and staff are thrilled with the new garden and everyone is helping in unique ways. One resident and her daughter have been teaching volunteers how to properly care for the plants. The BATL-C highschool students offered to clean up and restore an old, unused greenhouse area at Wesley Place to expand the Urban Sensory Garden. The greenhouse will allow for Wesley Place residents to grow plants which will hopefully be used to start a Sensory Garden at Hartwell Place and Covenant Home next spring. And this is just scratching the surface of the community engagement.
“I have been amazed at the intensity of the response,” Ann Brennan, CMSS Director of Volunteer Services, said.
As one CMSS resident experiencing memory loss began spending time in the sensory garden, her mood quickly lifted. She had previously worked as a gardener — something she hadn’t mentioned to others — and being surrounded by plants brought back fond memories.
Volunteers with the BATL-C initiative, including racially and ethnically diverse high students from across Chicago, are taught empathy, patience and compassion when spending time with seniors. Parents of the students in the program are finding that their kids know what to say when conversing with older adults and have learned how to better communicate with loved ones in their own families. What started as volunteering at the sensory garden transferred home organically.
Dr. Aggarwal plans to coordinate a trip for CMSS residents to visit The Memory Farm — a chance for residents to see where the Urban Sensory Garden found its inspiration. To stay up-to-date on the Urban Sensory Garden, follow our blog.