Underneath a white tent in the middle of the Living Earth Center garden, Sheen Chiou, a communication sciences professor at Minnesota State University, 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 in Mankato is for adults with memory challenges. It’s a dementia-friendly garden that was born from a longtime 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.
“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 nursing professor.
This season 39 undergraduate and graduate student volunteers from MSU are getting firsthand experiences working in memory care. This benefits students from different disciplines such as 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.”
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.”