Christina Bern, left, helps Rogue Valley Manor resident Jenny Ackerman, 95, with planting. - Jim Craven

Manor garden program offers benefits

A ray of sunshine bathes a green patch of hillside earth and beckons a handful of Rogue Valley Manor residents to check their newly planted flowers.

The garden includes a collection of bright spring flowers nestled inside a pair of wood-framed garden beds. One bed offers knee-high seating and the other was constructed to accommodate wheelchairs.

But this is more than simply a beautiful garden, and the activities offer more than simple gardening, says Christina Bern, Rogue Valley Manor activities leader.

It is a form of organized therapy, an opportunity for seniors with varying levels of physical and mental challenges to engage in a social activity outside the assisted-living home.

Manor resident Charlotte Warren, a retiree from Maui, sifts warm, dark soil through her fingertips and enjoys the sun on her arms as she sits in her wheelchair at the taller of the two flower boxes.

Bern teases Warren, "Charlotte never wants to wear gloves. She likes the feel of the dirt on her hands."

The simple act of touching the dirt and handling flowers, Bern points out, provides a host of physical, emotional and social benefits.

Using techniques she's learning in Portland Community College's gerontology program, Bern is establishing a horticulture therapy program at the Manor.

The focus, Bern says, is to improve people's quality of life through gardening.

For individuals who have suffered a stroke or dementia, even basic tasks like eating can be difficult.

Engaging clients and patients in low-tech gardening activities, such as digging, watering and pruning, can achieve treatment goals, Bern says.

As a form of cognitive therapy, gardening helps clients learn new skills and regain skills that have been lost, she says. As rehabilitation therapy, it can help patients retrain muscles and improve strength, coordination and balance.

In just a few months with the Manor, Bern says, she has seen results.

"People with advanced dementia or people who have had strokes really don't even use their hands much," Bern says. "They'll maybe do what they have to do, like eat something, but when I'm working with them here, for them to take a root ball and place it in a hole is a big deal.

"Gardening is a very normalizing activity, where they're not just surrounded by sterile hospital stuff. They're feeling life again. It jogs long-term memories and improves motor skills."

Oblivious to therapy options or medical jargon, Warren marvels at the raindrops left on colorful petals from an early-morning shower and enjoys the sunshine on her arms.

Merely an occasional gardener "years and years ago," Warren admits she enjoys working with her hands to tend the flowers for the Manor's new program.

"I just plant what they give me," Warren says. "I love being outside so I don't mind helping."

As Bern leaves Warren observing some pansies, she wanders over to Manor resident Jenny Ackerman.

Wearing pink gloves, Ackerman needs no prodding or reminding.

"You brought me out here to work," Ackerman teases Bern as she digs holes for delicate flower starts that match her bright gloves.

For most residents Bern has worked with, gardening serves as a pleasant reminder of the past.

An Alzheimer's patient Bern recently took on a walk through the garden was unable to tend the flowers but was still eager for trips to look at flowers. That reminded Bern of the reasons she ventured into horticultural therapy.

Although taken aback by the scent of recently planted rosemary — Alzheimer's patients often have an exaggerated sense of smell — the woman connected with the aroma of freshly tended dirt.

"She smelled the soil and she took a deep breath and said, 'Mmm, that smells good.' "

Bern smiles when she later helps Ackerman plant the flower starts.

"For Jenny, it's old hat. You can tell she was a gardener," she says.

To which Ackerman replies, "I guess you can tell I've got a good memory."

Intent on her task, Ackerman adds a small row of pink flowers.

"Won't that be pretty?" she says.

In addition to her work at the Manor, Bern offers six-week sessions to developmentally disabled adults through her own company, "Garden People," and works with students at Crater High School.

For details on horticultural therapy, send an e-mail to

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at

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