Therapeutic Recreation: Helping Seniors Cultivate Better Mental Health


Remember the days when almost everyone you knew had a garden and grew their own veggies? Or, for those of the younger generation, hearing stories  from your parents or grand-parents? Thankfully, many people are reconnecting with that tradition, and little garden patches are springing up everywhere.

But many of those original gardeners are seniors now and in some cases can no longer reap the emotional and physical benefits that gardening can provide.

I am a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist with Eastern Health. This spring, I developed and planned a therapeutic gardening program for patients of the Geriatric Psychiatry Day Hospital (GPDH), an out-patient service for seniors living with mental health challenges.

The importance of using physical, social and artistic activities to help improve a patient’s health cannot be understated.  While it might look like simple fun, these activities, when applied by a trained specialist, can help maintain or improve patients’ physical, cognitive, social, and emotional well-being.

So creating a garden seemed like a natural solution to achieve some of those benefits. The whole GPDH team pulled together to support and help implement it and ensure its success.

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Gardeners Ruth and Len along with TrudyLynn Gill, occupational therapist with Eastern Health (middle) checking on the their gardens’ growth

Planting the Seed

Gardening allows you to connect with nature, socialize with friends and in some cases, learn new skills. Of even more importance, especially as we grow older, gardening helps us improve our strength, endurance and flexibility. Additional benefits, particularly key for those living with mental health challenges, can include an improvement in attention span, concentration, and mood.

I chose the Cavell Park Community Garden as the most suitable location for our gardeners. It borders the lower parking lot of the Miller Centre and is a reasonable and accessible walk for most patients. It also allowed patients to be a part of an already existing, very positive community effort. Because we were members of the Cavell Park Community Garden, selected patients served on the water barrel filling team. They felt a great sense of pride in keeping the barrels filled for use by all members.

Those unable to walk to the garden grew tomatoes and herbs; annuals and perennials in planters close to the day hospital entrance.

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Gardeners Cheema and Ewan observing their gardens’ progress, along with Liz Power, RN (back)

Watching it Grow

Over the summer, many enjoyable hours were spent planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting. We grew potatoes, carrots, beets, parsnip, snow peas, tomatoes, onions, green onions and garlic.

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(l-r) Gardeners Ruth and Cheema enjoying their harvest

Some produce was harvested and shared through the summer and others such as the root vegetables were harvested in the fall. As a group we decided to make a pot of soup with our produce. Ingredients we did not have were supplied by the whole group, each one donating spices, barley, meat, bread rolls, etc. The result was a delicious pot of beef and vegetable soup shared and enjoyed by all.

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(l-r) Gardeners Mary, Ruth, Betty, Cheema and Dallas preparing their soup

Reaping the Reward

Remember the benefits of gardening I mentioned earlier? I observed many over the summer. Patient engagement was high and some patients even made trips to the garden on their own to water the beds, check on changes as crops grew and report back on how things were looking. There was always a lot of curiosity about what other people in the community garden were growing and how plants looked as they developed.

Excitement grew in particular around the tomatoes. Since they were planted by the entrance of the day hospital, changes in how they grew and ripened, were noticed frequently. We had a ceremonial picking of the first ripe tomato, which was smaller than a ping pong ball, and cut it into about 15 pieces so that everyone could have a taste. It was a silly, but fun way to share and enjoy the harvest.

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(l-r) Gardener Ewan, Airdrie  therapeutic recreation specialists, gardener Dace along with TrudyLynn, occupational therapist with Eastern Health, checking out their growing vegetables

Patients were asked for their feedback regarding the therapeutic gardening program. There were many positive comments and conversations. One patient, who was nearing discharge, asked: “Could I please just stay until harvest? I’ve never done anything like this before!” Other comments included:

  • “We saw – and ate – the “fruit of our labour.”
  • “Gardening got us outdoors in the sunshine!”
  • “I enjoyed the camaraderie and sharing.”
  • “I liked how we started from scratch and saw things grow and change every week.”
  • “I remembered how I used to set a garden at home.”
  • “Doing this makes me want to build a raised bed at home.”
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Gardener Dallas enjoying the time spent gardening

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Dave gathering fresh veggies

This project really demonstrated the value that targeted physical, social and artistic activities can bring to an individual’s overall health and the role therapeutic recreation can play in promoting optimal recovery and wellness. Our patients have reaped these positive benefits and we’ve planted the seeds of growth for next year, and coming years – puns intended!

This story was written by Airdrie Miller, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist at the Dr. L.A. Miller Centre.

2 responses to “Therapeutic Recreation: Helping Seniors Cultivate Better Mental Health

  1. I enjoyed this story very much. It seems that it was enjoyed by the patients and Employees alike.Thanks to caring emplyees like Airdrie, for taking the time and effort to develope such a worthwhile program.

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