Gardening As Therapy With Stacey Smith

by Simona Terron
Ever noticed how most hospitals, rehabilitation centers, mental health institutions, prisons and institutions for troubled youths have well-maintained, manicured gardens? Aesthetic purposes aside, harvesting gardens serve an important therapeutic purpose in the emotional and psychological healing of people. This is precisely why Stacey Smith, a certified occupational therapy assistant at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Fayetteville, grows flowers and herbs in the hospital’s healing garden. Often, she also incorporates these herbs into cooking activities that she organizes with her patients.

How can therapists use such healing gardens for rehabilitation of patients? Stacey Smith helps us dig deep into the issue.

Excerpts from our interview with Stacey Smith

Q 1: How can gardening benefit patients emotionally and psychologically?
Patient interaction with gardening has been shown to decrease stress, anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure, among multiple other benefits. It has also been found that there is bacteria in dirt that is linked to boosting the production of serotonin in the brain, which is a mood regulating chemical. Contact with soil itself may actually improve patients’ moods and decrease depression.              

Q 2: Does the whole ‘connecting to the earth’ principle come into play with occupational therapy that involves gardening?
Gardening as an intervention is a holistic approach that can assist the patients in spiritual growth as well as emotionally, cognitively and physically. It’s a multi-sensory task that allows the patient to connect to nature and feel like a productive member of society.

Q 3: How does indulging in a physical activity like gardening lead to resolution of issues that are embedded deep within the psyche of patients?
Overall, it affects the patients’ moods. It creates a pleasant and stimulating atmosphere which can reduce stress and anxiety. Engrossing themselves in nature can help distract the patients from pain and even depression. Gardening has also been shown to help prevent dementia, as it requires you to use cognitive skills and creativity. Keeping the mind engaged and active decreases the likelihood of developing degenerative disorders.

Q 4: The beneficial effects of herbs on the emotional and spiritual health of those consuming them is finally being recognized by the scientific community. What are your thoughts about this?
I think it is great that herbs are now being recognized by the scientific community. In my opinion, that means healthcare professionals are taking a more holistic approach with their patients. The majority of patients do not want to take an abundance of medications and do not like the thought of putting various chemicals in their body. If medications can be replaced with a safer alternative, why shouldn’t they be? Herbs can help support physical, emotional and mental health. With education, I think more patients would be willing to incorporate herbs into their diets to improve overall health vs. taking numerous medications.

Q 5: How can those living in cities, with limited or no access to gardens, avail of the benefits of gardening?
Any engagement with plants, flowers, herbs, etc., could help. For people who do not have access to larger gardens, they can utilize small pots inside or outside their homes or even window boxes to create their own utopia. There are also various community gardens around the nation that people could get involved with, not only renewing their relationship with nature but also with their communities.

Q 6: What should folks tell their loved ones when encouraging them to try occupational therapy?
Occupational therapy engages the patients in functional, meaningful and therapeutic activities to assist the patients in achieving satisfaction in their daily life. Our goal is to help our patients get back to their highest level of independence encompassing all areas of life including physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Q 7: Are there any things to keep in mind when trying to decide if one is cut out for this specific kind of therapy?
Most patients would benefit from gardening in various ways. Like any intervention, we always have to consider safety before engaging with the patient in therapy. Another reason to potentially avoid gardening with a patient would be if they have no interest in that type of intervention. This can be determined through an interview with your patient. However, the great thing about occupational therapy is we find ways to modify a task to promote success with the activity. For example, if a patient is not able to kneel down in a flower bed we may have them plant in a raised bed from their wheelchair or even plant something in a pot table top.

Q 8: How does one know this method is truly working? Is there any report of this therapy’s failure rate?
 Depending on what purpose you are trying to achieve with the patient, with this intervention, there are various tests/measurements that can be taken to determine whether or not the treatment is successful. Balance, endurance, coordination, strength, memory and cognitive skills can all be measured with various standardized and non-standardized assessments before and after treatment to show progression. Vitals can also be assessed before, during or after gardening with a patient to show whether or not the treatment is affecting heart rate, blood pressure or respiration rate. A clinician could also use observation of the patient and interview with the patient to determine if the treatment is working. I am not aware of any reports that show this therapy’s failure rate. To my knowledge, there have been no controlled clinical trials out there supporting the positive or negative effects of gardening in the rehabilitation setting.

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