Volunteers, patients with memory loss share common experiences through gardening

People with memory challenges are making lasting impressions in an unlikely place — a community garden.

Two students walk with woman through garden
Minnesota State University, Mankato student volunteers walk and talk with a resident of an assisted living center at the Living Earth Center's dementia friendly garden program on June 7.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Underneath a white tent in the middle of the Living Earth Center garden, Sheen Chiou, a communication sciences professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato walked a group of about nine student volunteers through their tasks for the day.

“They first will have to know what dementia is like, what people with dementia will look like, and how to engage with them in a way that it’s being supported,” Chiou said. “As long as they are engaging in a conversation, that’s the point of having a meaningful engagement opportunity.”

The Garden EngAGEment program at the  Living Earth Center is for adults with memory challenges. It’s a dementia-friendly garden that was born from a long-time dream of Mankato and North Mankato Alzheimer’s action team, otherwise known as the ACT Team, in 2019.

Dementia friendly gardens engage the five senses and are modeled after gardens in the United Kingdom that are accessible to those with memory challenges. Some volunteers crush mint leaves with their fingers, or hold out a sprig of dill weed for visitors to inhale the scent. Sometimes, it brings back memories and patients start reminiscing with volunteers about gardens they used to have.

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Woman rubs herb plant on hand for man in sensory garden
Living Earth Center director Lauren Peterson (right) shows an herb to a resident of an assisted living center in Mankato during a sensory program on June 7. The program is meant to help engage residents with dementia through gardening.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

“We have walkways here that accommodate assistive devices like walkers, then we have seating and then shade so that we can accommodate whatever needs the individuals have so that they’re comfortable while they’re visiting,” said Kristen Abbott-Andersen, an MSU Mankato nursing professor.

This season 39 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers from MSU Mankato are getting firsthand experiences working in memory care. This benefits students from different disciplines like social work, communications and nursing.

About 50 million people around the world have dementia, and every year, there are nearly 10 million new cases. COVID-19 halted last year’s program, but Abbott-Anderson said participants were excited to get their hands in the dirt again for the garden’s second season.

“What we find is that they are more talkative, they come into the garden sort of quiet,” she said. “And then, as the session goes on, they get more and more talkative and more and more engaged with each other.”

Parsley plant in sensory garden
Participants in the dementia-friendly garden at Living Earth Center are able to engage their senses with various herbs grown at the garden.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Participants plant, water and maintain the garden. They also taste and smell the herbs like mint, marjoram and dill weed. Those moments are what help bring patients out of their shells and enjoy the garden even more, said Heather Ballman, activities director for Pillars of Mankato Assisted Living Center.

“When they were younger, they had gardens at home and so this is a great opportunity for them to be in a garden again,” she said.

The therapeutic environment even brings impressionable moments for volunteers and caregivers. Ballman remembered how sometimes, her residents would talk excitedly about visiting the plots and some would even dance and sing during the program.

These opportunities at Living Earth Center, Ballman said, are important for educating the public on how to treat and interact with people with memory challenges while also helping participants age with dignity by finding common ground and experiences to make lasting connections.

“When you’re working with people with memory challenges, they’re not small children,” Ballman said. “They are adults and even though they may not remember what happened a week ago, or five minutes ago, they aren’t children and so we have to treat them like adults.”