Within five minutes of speaking with 94-year-old Mike Cafone, anyone can discover where his passion lies. A resident of the Westerly Health Center, Mike counts the duties of tending the center’s gardens as one of his main responsibilities and pleasures – weeding, watering and eventually sharing the fruits of his labor with others. He echoes the sentiments of those who find joy in tending to a garden to be a therapeutic experience, one that brings satisfaction and gives him a sense of accomplishment.

“It makes me feel closer to God,” he says with a beaming smile.

For Mike and many like him, however, the physical limitations that come with age, injury or illness threaten to strip them of the simple pleasure gardening provides. But thanks to Ray LaRocque, a Westerly resident confined to a wheelchair, nursing home residents like Mike can continue to enjoy their passion for gardening.

Accessible Gardens™ is a gardening solution for people with disabilities and physical restrictions developed by LaRocque five years ago. Having suffered a spinal cord injury, he didn’t have the range of motion necessary for bending down in the garden. Not one to be easily discouraged, LaRocque’s solution was bringing the garden up to him.

While raised garden beds were not hard to find, he was unable to find any that really accommodated the needs of those in a wheelchair. From that realization came the idea to design a raised bed that allowed a wheelchair to fit underneath it so that the plants could be reached comfortably and thus, Accessible Gardens™ was born.

It wasn’t until a chance meeting with nursing home Activity Director Gerry McVeigh that LaRocque and his Accessible Gardens™ partner, craftsman Leon Tunnicliff, began to see an expanded audience for the Accessible Gardens™ concept.

McVeigh pointed out that their product could be used by hundreds of nursing home residents who, though not confined to a wheelchair, had physical impairments that curtailed their ability to garden. She introduced the concept to her employer, who put it in place for residents to use. Right after that McVeigh moved to her present job at Westerly Health Center and started working to get the gardens there.

“I wasn’t about to give up on the dream of having them for my residents,” she said. Since then, LaRocque and Tunicliff have placed Accessible Gardens™ in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and retirement centers throughout Southern Rhode Island.

McVeigh understood what horticultural therapists know all too well. There are numerous psychological and rehabilitative benefits to gardening, especially for special populations like the elderly. Nursing home residents in particular, whose physical impairments often place them in a dependent position, can find a sense of purpose through gardening; becoming the caretaker instead of the one in need.

The gardens can alleviate feelings of isolation, as they often become social centers enjoyed by residents, families and staff alike. On the rehabilitative side, gardening has occupational and physical therapy benefits, helping to enhance fine and large motor skills.

“The gardens enhance a person’s standing and balance, even fine dexterity skills. It all comes into play,” explained Lynn Larson, a therapist and co-worker of McVeigh.

Some skilled nursing centers, like Elmhurst Extended Care in Providence, operate as “Eden Alternative” homes, whose mission formally recognizes the importance of caring for plants and animals to alleviate loneliness and helplessness in nursing homes.

Eden Alternative homes are at the forefront of the culture change movement, a movement in nursing home care focused on resident-centered care, not institutional care. For the past several years, the concepts of the culture change movement have been sweeping through the long-term care profession and ideas like Accessible Gardens™ are fast becoming commonplace.

The benefits to nursing home residents never entered Ray LaRocque’s mind when designing his first raised garden, but seeing the enjoyment his creation has given residents like Mike Cafone has been the icing on the cake.

PrimeTime Seniors Magazine
Providence, Rhode Island
by Kerry Park