Petit Rat never allows freezing temperatures, torrential rain or scorching sun to interfere with her love of gardening. The 93-year-old tends to use sage, saffron, and other aromatic herbs in any weather in the warmth of a wheeled indoor garden in Brethren Village, a retired community in Lititz.
“It got me out of my room,” says Ratt, who remembers starting a garden on her husband’s farm in Donegal when she was newlywed years ago. This mobile collection of blue African basil, rosemary, bronze fennel, lavender, and other aromatic plants usually stays in the first-floor lounge of the retirement community’s personal care building, which houses about 80 residents.
In the Legend of Lancaster in Manor Township, another community for seniors, Jackie Gribble grows her own coleus, a colorful grass, from clippings from that community’s mobile garden. That way, 82-year-old Griebel can garden her room in the center’s Memory Care Building as well as with some of 30 other people in a 6-by-4-foot gardening cart.
“I love gardening, and I love my friends,” Grebel explains. She grew up in Yorkshire, England, and remembers planting trees in her garden there.
Providing a day destination for Rutt and Gribble is just one feature of Seattle-based ElderGrow, which offers therapeutic and culinary garden programs for seniors in nearly 300 retirement communities in 23 states.
“I want to support people in this chapter of their lives,” says Orla Konkanon, who set up the company as an MBA project at the University of Washington Graduate School of Business. The business plan won two cash prizes, saving money for Concannon to start ElderGrow on Earth Day in 2015. The company now employs about 13 people.
“Serving seniors is a passion,” she says, explaining that the close relationship with her grandmother, who passed away at the age of 99, provided a personal look at the ongoing care and activities of seniors. “Because of it, I feel that older people are often overlooked,” Concannon says.
For example, the business owner said she has seen beautiful plants, gardens, and landscaping in retiree communities, but has also noticed how few residents have been able to handle lush greenery due to commuting and weather concerns.
Concannon also cites research that shows therapeutic gardening can reduce depression, lower the risk of dementia, improve balance and lower blood pressure.
ElderGrow’s Culinary Garden provides herbs, recipes, and monthly activities to retiree communities. Therapeutic gardens add actual ElderGrow gardeners who lead the twice-monthly programs.
Angie Martin, of Manor Town, is one of them. She works as an ElderGrow customer success manager and garden trainer, and oversees culinary gardens throughout much of the East Coast and Texas. She helps retired community employees manage their gardens.
Martin also leads the Therapeutic Gardens Program at the Legend campuses in Lancaster and Lietitz, where she helps residents nurture a garden that offers experiences with all five senses.
First, the participants in the garden study the appearance of the grass and get acquainted with the country or region from which the plant originates, listening to each other and with Martin. The participants then touch their herb sample, plying their fingers to touch it and reach for the scent. Gardeners can also sample delicacies made with the herb, such as hot sage tea, corn and bean succotash, or a cocktail called Lavender Bees Knees, made with gin and honey syrup mixed with lavender. Plus, art projects include decorating the tops of herb-painted pumpkins or making dolls out of corn husks.
“It’s a great job to do,” says Martin, who learned gardening from her Mennonite family. It’s about the Legend residents who recite poems about trees or create “spider” plants using black pipe cleaners for Halloween.
“This improves the quality and quantity of residents’ lives,” she said.
Esther Miller agrees.
“ElderGrow has a history and reputation for being successful with people in the field of memory care,” says Miller, who coordinates Life Enrichment at Legend of Lancaster. “It’s a good hour to learn.”
Susan Miller has the same feeling at Brethren Village. You receive training from Martin to lead a culinary garden. “We wanted to provide residents with an activity that reduces depression and improves motor skills,” notes Susan Miller. The brothers started his garden this fall. Area Legend Campus began working with ElderGrow in 2018.
January brings delicious Scottish and winter herbs to ElderGrow’s programs in Lancaster County. Resident gardeners will study British culture and craft herbal salt. They might also try cock-a-leekie, a Scottish dish made with leeks and a delicious broth. February plans include Cuban oregano that will help fill diffuser bags.
This works for the founder of Concannon.
“I wanted to find a way to bring nature indoors and improve the quality of life,” she says. “I feel very strongly that humans, at any age, can continue to grow.”