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One with nature

DelVal students bring the joy of gardening to residents at a senior care facility

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

For most, gardening is a fun hobby. But for others, it’s a dream career and a way to make an impact. One group of horticultural therapy students from Delaware Valley University recently brought joy in the form of nature to local seniors at the assisted living facility Pine Run Lakeview, transporting residents back to a happier time.

Time to flourish: Pictured are (from left) Nancy Minich, Joan Stelmach, Nancy Winthrop, Velma DiRoberto, Sharon Lohse and Pinkky Kanabar. PHOTO: Delaware Valley University

Pine Run Lakeview, located in Doylestown, is a personal-care home with a focus on ADL’s (activities of daily living). According to Maureen Riley, director of life enrichment at Pine Run, many of the residents suffer from dementia and need assistance with daily tasks such as remembering meals and taking medications. But when it comes to the joys of gardening, limited assistance is needed.

With DelVal only a stone’s throw away from Pine Run, the students in the Horticultural Therapy Certificate Program wanted to put their knowledge and passion to good use. Throughout the past spring semester, the students were paired with an individual resident and met with them weekly to engage them in horticultural therapeutic activities.

For their final project, two large garden beds were installed along the perimeter of Pine Run, built low to be accessible by walker and wheelchair. Everything from basil and tomatoes to mint and lavender was planted in the beds, which the residents are able to tend to and water whenever they wish. Many of the plants are used in Pine Run’s kitchen, so the residents are able to literally taste the fruits of their labor.

“I’m delighted. It’s very exciting,” said Velma DiRoberto, a resident who has been enjoying the new garden beds. “It brings back memories of being with my mother in the garden. My mother used to grow vegetables and cook with them.”

According to Riley, 80–90 percent of the residents suffer from memory loss. Though they may have helped to plant something one day, they will have forgotten by the next. Still, she doesn’t see this as a bad thing.

“It’s a new experience for them every single time,” she said. “They can share in that excitement over and over again.”

Pine Run has plans to start a garden club in the near future, which will be led by DelVal student Sharon Lohse.

For classmate Joan Stelmach, the project allowed her to relate to the residents on a personal level when it came to the health benefits of gardening. Halfway through the program, Stelmach was diagnosed with cancer. Though it was a scary and unsure time, tending to her garden made her feel better.

“Nature is so important to healing,” she said. “I found that out myself.”

Currently, Stelmach is completing her 400-plus practicum hours to become a registered horticultural therapist and is ready for a “late life career” after almost 10 years working at a software company. The program has been an eye-opening experience for her, allowing her to interact with all populations and teach them how gardening can be beneficial for anyone.

During one class visit to the VA Center, the students worked with veterans and introduced them to planting pots. Though her veteran group was predominantly male, she saw the joy in their eyes as they experienced the beauty of nature.

“It was an overwhelming, humbling experience,” she said.

At an internship through Bucks County Audubon Society, Stelmach is working with members of Peaceful Living, a nonprofit that helps locals with intellectual disabilities and autism, to build a Healing Garden. Members are able to help water the plants and have a direct hand in the garden’s creation, and can see their progress from week to week.

“It’s a win-win,” said Nancy Minich, a registered horticultural therapist and program instructor at DelVal. “Students get experience and clients get enrichment.”

According to Stelmach, DelVal’s horticultural certification is the only program in the area, and with only a handful of students, she hopes it gains more traction as people start to realize a hobby can be turned into a rewarding career.

“It makes you feel good when you do things like this,” she said. “It’s such a positive experience.” ••

For more information on Delaware Valley University’s Horticultural Therapy Certificate Program, visit delval.edu/continuing-and-professional-studies/credit-certificate-programs/horticultural-therapy.

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