Creating a Peaceful Slice of Home

By Anthony Tesselaar

Raised beds for those in beds or wheelchairs, as well as plants that offer tactile stimulation are two new popular features in health care landscape design.
Image courtesy Zaretsky and Associates.

I travel the world in search of beautiful, easy-care plants.  While I often meet with breeders and growers, I also meet with landscape designers, builders and architects so I can understand any changes in the marketplace, what kind of plants are needed to accommodate those changes, and how Tesselaar Plants can help.

In the past few years, one change stands out: a boom in landscaping projects for senior living and health care facilities. Despite struggles elsewhere in the economy, landscapers tell me opportunities abound in this segment of the market — from hospitals to retirement communities to assisted living centers.

“In the past 10 years, we’ve been involved in at least a dozen projects directly related to health care and the aging population — prior to that, none,” said Bruce Zaretsky, co-owner of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design-build firm in Rochester, N.Y.

According to the AARP, approximately 1 million Americans live in assisted living facilities, and this number is expected to double by 2030. Baby Boomers represent more than 70 percent of all the financial assets in the United States, and recent surveys show they want health care communities that remind them of home rather than institutions.

The July 2011 American Society of Landscape Artchitects’ [ital>Business Quarterly<ital] survey asked landscapers about how the aging population has affected business over the past five years. Project types with the most growth included health care design (41.7 percent), assisted living facilities (36.5 percent), active adult/retirement communities (35.9 percent), therapeutic gardens (32 percent) and aging-in-place design (29.2 percent).

So when designing landscapes for these areas, here are a few points to keep in mind:

Use easy-care plants with season-long interest

Those in senior living and health care communities want low-maintenance, tough plants that are reliably colorful and healthy-looking all season long. Residents at the Rolling Fields Elder Care Community in Conneautville, Pa., for example, love looking at the Flower Carpet roses in the home’s Enchanted Garden, since they bloom May through November and are disease, drought and pest resistant.

“They love the bright colors and the fullness of the flowers,” said Kathy Porter, the home’s marketing director.

And since these roses are easy to prune and don’t require chemical sprays or deadheading, they’re also easier to maintain for the growing number of residents that want to help with the gardens at these kinds of facilities. The residents also don’t have to be subjected to toxic chemical treatments.

Plants that provide fragrance, such as this mildew-resistant, purple Volcano phlox, are used in horticultural therapy gardens to trigger memories.
Photo provided by Tesselaar Plants


Incorporate elements for “active living”

Today’s aging population is much more active than its predecessors, and these individuals want to be outside, gardening, walking, reading and healing.

Porter said Rolling Fields residents have their own garden for growing vegetables that are used in the kitchen. They also enter their veggies — and photos of the flowers on site — in the local county fair.

Even those in wheelchairs or motorized scooters want to take part — hence the need for raised beds for greater accessibility, “workable” gardens (vegetables, herbs and cutting garden plots), non-glare paving, lighting for evening use, and heat and shelter for inclement weather.

Zaretsky and Associates, which has done award-winning work in this area, regularly adds these new “musts.” It even incorporates active-living features like measured walking tracks (so residents can track their progress) and storage sheds for gardening tools and materials.

Keep “horticultural therapy” in mind

Hospitals and other health care centers are now recognizing that gardens are healing facilitators — as important as physical therapy, medications and other mainstream healing devices.

Zaretsky designs and builds pathways that incorporate increasingly difficult surfaces.  “Seniors can ‘get their feet back’ as they walk along peaceful paths,” said Zaretsky. “Even labyrinths, which foster meditation while walking, are a popular feature.”

Water features, with their peaceful sounds of running water and psychological association with life and tranquility, also provide auditory therapy. Porter noted how Rolling Fields residents love to gather at the koi ponds and waterfalls.

“Rolling Fields has also incorporated memorial bricks into its Tranquility Garden path,” said Porter. “Visitors may purchase bricks for family members to honor elders and caregivers.”

Beyond just creating an inspiring, peaceful environment that fosters healing, the plants themselves play a huge — not to mention profitable — role in therapy gardens. Their texture, fragrance, sound — and even taste (as is the case with Rolling Fields, which has planted fruit trees) help stimulate the senses and the mind-body connection.

Fragrant plants such as phlox, herbs and roses are wonderful for evoking memories, especially in Alzheimer’s gardens. Sounds can be added with grasses that sway in the wind. And teachable moments can be created by adding plants historically used for medicinal purposes. At Rochester General Hospital, Zaretsky and Associates has incorporated echinacea, Joe Pye weed, yew (taxus) and witch-hazel just for this purpose.

Sustainability sells

Landscapers are receiving many requests for projects that are “sustainable,” or “green,” incorporating features such as rain barrels, rain gardens and bioswales. And there are a growing number of financial incentives for facilities incorporating eco-friendly elements on their campus. This can be as simple as planting large shade trees in place of more traditional shelters like gazebos and pavilions, or incorporating easy-care plants that are colorful and drought and disease resistant.

Bring the outdoors in

Interiorscaping — bringing landscaping, gardening and plants indoors — has never been more popular, and that’s especially true at today’s health care facilities. The public has become increasingly aware of recent studies showing how indoor plants not only filter allergens and pollutants from the air, but also pump out fresh oxygen, boosting energy levels and mood.

“Our perennial flower gardens were planted with the idea in mind that our elders could have fresh-cut flowers in their rooms if they so desired,” said Porter. “Elders can cut the flowers themselves or have a caregiver do it for them.”

Rolling Fields, she noted, also has an indoor “planting” sunroom where elders can start their vegetable seeds or help take care of indoor plants. This activity offers so many therapeutic benefits.

Learn it, sell it

Anyone who desires to do this type of work should get some specific education in the design and use of health care gardens. Although a lot of it is common sense, there are factors that must be considered for each specific user of the garden. From there, it’s a matter of recognizing the need and approaching the facility. Zaretsky, one of the first to be certified in Health Care Garden Design by the Chicago Botanic Garden, started out by doing pro bono design and then design competitions. After seeing the firm’s work, clients started coming to him.

The more options you’re aware of, the better equipped you are to meet a prospective client’s unique desires and needs. So educate them, and show them studies documenting why health care landscape design matters, and how it can help such facilities compete. Remember, these centers, communities and hospitals now need appealing, updated landscaping and health care gardens to attract new residents.

“I’ve used pictures of the Flower Carpet roses on our marketing DVD labels and newspaper ads,” said Porter, noting that Rolling Fields had a competition for caregivers and elders for a slogan that best describes the home. “The winner was ‘Getting Old Never Looked so Good,’” she said. “So I’ve used the slogan with the pictures of the roses that have the view of the pond in the background for newspaper ads.”

Altogether, this new direction in landscaping for health and senior facilities is a winning one for all.

Co-founder and president of Tesselaar Plants, Anthony Tesselaar is a third-generation nurseryman who searches the globe for “wow” plants, new ideas and, more importantly, new insights into what and why people buy.

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