What is a Healing Garden?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Squirrels provide healing entertainment

By Jeanne Shepard, occupational therapist

It is morning in the Occupational Therapy clinic at Anderson House, a skilled nursing facility in Shoreline, Washington.

Two occupational therapists are working with their patients. One patient is working on functional leg strength, standing with his hands at a tall table. He is looking straight ahead out the window at a squirrel that is trying to eat corn from a pinwheel contraption on a tree. He is distracted from the discomfort in his legs, by the antics of the squirrel.

The other therapist is working with a woman who has had a stroke. The therapist is encouraging the patient with a visual neglect to look to her weakened side by turning the wheelchair so she has to look to the left, to see some blue jays at a peanut feeder.

Healing gardens typically have featured flowers, edible vegetables and fragrant plants, to appeal to the senses. But another purpose of a healing garden may be to connect the clients/patients with wildlife, such as birds and small mammals, or colorful insects, such as butterflies. Many patients at Anderson House have pets, and have a connection with all kinds of animals. Some feed birds and squirrels themselves at home and consider it a comfortingly familiar and favorite pastime.

The healing garden outside the occupational therapy window at Anderson House was created with that goal in mind, to let the patients connect with the local wildlife, particularly the birds and squirrels.  

The space behind the OT clinic was an abandoned place where old furniture was stacked up against the wall. There were weeds and not much more, besides a pine tree and some shrubs against the cyclone fence. With the permission and support of Anderson House’s owners, the garden was created. A maintenance man weed whacked down the weeds, and some bird/squirrel accouterments were added: a bird-seed feeder hung from the eves of the building, a pole with a peanut basket was placed, a three-ear dried corn feeder was attached to the pine tree, and a bird bath was placed on an abandoned table. 

Ice in a bottle provides a slow drip of water

A plastic bottle with ice in it was hung over the birdbath to gradually drip as it melted. A suet feeder attracts chickadees, flickers and downy woodpeckers.

A hummingbird feeder was hung from a red pole, to increase visibility for both the birds and the patients. Fuchsia shrubs were planted at the base to increase the desirability to the birds. Most of the materials and supplies come from Wild Birds Unlimited, at the Lake Forest Park Center.

A solar powered butterfly jitters in a circle, in a pot of marigolds and petunias, nearby. The hummingbird eyes it suspiciously.

Patients planted daffodils and tulips in pots that were set outside. In the spring they added welcome color.

Flowers that were planted as seeds by patients, nasturtiums, and wild flowers sat in pots on the abandoned table, next to the birdbath. Watching them grow daily has also been part of the purpose of the garden.

Stellar jays

Squirrels discovered the food almost immediately. Soon after, the regional Stellar jays discovered both the peanuts and the corn.

“It’s relaxing,” says one patient, who has walked down to the OT clinic by himself, just to sit and watch the birds.

“It’s comedy,” says another, watching two plump squirrels both try to get into the peanut feeder, at the same time.

“It’s like Wild Kingdom,” says someone, pointing out a neighborhood cat, stalking a squirrel.

“It makes her smile,” says the husband of a patient with a brain injury. He says he brings her down everyday, just to look out the window.


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