With such a wide body of research about the benefits of biophilic design, the senior living industry should be exploring more ways to creatively plan and design purposeful outdoor spaces. Consider therapeutic horticulture. Defined as a modality that supports programs aimed at enhancing health and wellbeing through active and passive interactions in nature, therapeutic horticulture can be viewed as elevating gardening to an intentional therapeutic intervention.
Most recently, this concept was highlighted at 2021’s EFA Expo in Chattanooga, Tennessee in a session titled “Outdoor Antidote: Introducing Therapeutic Horticulture into Senior Living Design.” Presented by Brad Smith, founder of BSA Place Creation, landscape architects and planners and Elizabeth “Leah” Diehl, director of therapeutic horticulture at the University of Florida’s (UF) Wilmot Botanical Gardens, the session dove into the many use cases already in existence that utilize therapeutic horticulture in the design of their spaces.
“While it’s great to create places where people enjoy being, how much more effective would it be if we also plan and program purposeful activities to take place in those spaces?” said Smith.
“Outdoor area development in senior living involves so much more than mere site cosmetology,” he continued. “Our aim is to develop evidence-based design solutions that truly add value, enriching the lives of residents, their families, and those who work on site. That’s why we initially reached out to Leah—we saw the need for communities to not only plan and design outdoor spaces, but to also plan and program the therapeutic activities that can happen there.”
Incorporating Therapeutic Horticulture Into Senior Living
In the Wilmot Botanical Gardens Therapeutic Horticulture Program at UF, Diehl works with diverse client groups from army veterans and young adults in addiction recovery to people with movement impairments and adults with developmental disabilities.
The program itself engages classes in a greenhouse and garden environment with activities exploring horticulture through the propagation and nurturing of plants. Each activity, in turn, is designed to incorporate specific therapeutic benefits, such as socialization, intellectual and sensory stimulation, gross/fine motor skills and eye/hand coordination.
From there, Smith realized how easily the program could be adapted for the needs of those in the senior living community. For instance, one of the best ways Smith has found to incorporate these programs has been to design outdoor and other plant-filled spaces that are not only beautiful, but also engaging in both passive and active ways.
“These spaces need to be physically accessible, but they also need to be psychologically accessible—in other words, do they look safe, comfortable, and interesting? Are there things to explore, discover, and engage with throughout the space while also providing comfortable resting areas?,” Diehl said.
It’s also important, she stated, for the landscape architect, horticultural therapist, administrators, staff, and residents at a community to create and plan ways for people to interact with the space and each other.
“Growing and maintaining plants is an inherently meaningful activity that contributes to one’s community and through that process we can help people build self-efficacy, self-esteem, and increase control over one’s environment.”
Facilities Should Get Creative With Their Spaces
In offering up creative ways to those facilities could reimagine their outdoor spaces to create communities, increase engagement and build upon life satisfaction, Smith gave the example of the Boothbay Botanical Gardens in Maine. There, the organization runs a therapeutic horticulture program for all ages with a garden that has individual spaces devoted to each of the senses.
Diehl, meanwhile, underscored the importance of those outdoor spaces by outlining a multitude of research studies on the benefits of nature interaction for older adults. She described how integrating therapeutic horticulture into those settings provides intentional and meaningful opportunities for seniors to build self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social connection that may have been lost in the aging process or in the transition into a new, shared living environment.
Concluding the session, Smith and Diehl challenged leaders and designers in senior living to press the envelope and delve into the low-cost, high-yield mix of interactive design and therapeutic horticulture. In doing so, leaders and designers will be able to revitalize their outdoor spaces, while enhancing the health and wellbeing of the entire senior community.
Another version of this article originally appeared on Environments for Aging.