For those of us who are passionate gardeners, getting out and playing in the dirt is a form of therapy. The act of pulling weeds and planting not only keeps us sane but gets us to exercise in ways the gyms can’t replicate.
But the health benefits of gardening aren’t reserved just for healthy people. Gardening is also proving to be a valuable therapeutic tool in the medical world. Just ask the patients at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Center. Each week, folks who are dealing with the aftermath of strokes, injuries and other health challenges can spend time tending a flower and vegetable garden.
Under the watchful care and guidance of therapists and a team of WSU Spokane County Master Gardeners, patients weed, deadhead, plant and harvest, and in the process relearn coordination, balance and cognitive skills that will allow them to regain a level of independence.
“When we have a patient who is interested in gardening we bring them out to the garden,” says Jen Hutchinson, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist with St. Luke’s. “We take patients who have had a stroke, a head or spinal cord injury or an amputation and teach them adaptive techniques and tools so they can get back to gardening when they go home.”
According to Hutchinson, letting patients know that they can still enjoy a favorite activity goes a long way in the healing process.
St. Luke’s horticultural program has been in operation for more than 10 years and is an integral part of the therapy program.
During warmer weather, patients work in the garden once a week or as often as their recovery programs allow.
During the winter, they plant and tend seedlings for spring planting or care for a collection of house plants in a recreation room.
The benefit of working in the garden was obvious for Zella Cox, who is recovering from a stroke. As she was carefully deadheading flowers in the garden’s planter boxes, she was recalling that she and her husband tend a large vegetable garden. For Eileen Ehr, words didn’t come easily but her fingers were having no problem deadheading.
“The patients come in thinking they can’t do anything anymore,” Hutchinson said. “Once they realize they can, they are motivated, excited and empowered to get home and garden again.”
This empowerment carries over to other activities. “They often think they are just having a good time in the garden without realizing that they are relearning skills that will help them stay independent when they go home.”