Updated: Jun 24, 2022
“Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” – Khalil Gibran
As I sit nestled comfortably near a babbling brook, breathing the fresh smell of damp tree trunks, my mind wanders. Watching the water flow over the stones, a memory of a woman I once knew becomes clear. "Irene" lived most of her life in the Louisiana bayou country.
Catching catfish was her favorite pastime, and she was more comfortable on the water than on land. Around the age of 78, her husband died, and needing personal care assistance; she moved to an assisted living near her daughter in California.
I was working as the Director of Activities when I met Irene. She was timid and was not interested in participating in community activities. I would often visit her in her room, and she would light up when sharing stories of life on the bayou.
As I listened to her stories, I could see her eyes glisten with unshed tears. Life was no longer meaningful for Irene, and her new home did not have access to a lake, pond or even a view of the natural world she so loved.
Irene continued to isolate herself in her room as the months went by, her health deteriorating with each passing day. After Irene moved to California, she no longer got her daily dose of nature time, what Richard Louv calls 'vitamin N’. Irene suffered greatly from ‘nature-deficit disorder contributing to emotional and physical illness.
I have met many "Irene's" while working in assisted living and memory care communities.
The ecological theory of aging provides a solid framework for understanding person-environment exchange that influences physical mobility, cognitive decline, sensory loss, and the relationship between the environment, including housing, access to the outdoors, and community characteristics.
Research literature has shown the importance of environmental attributes for assisted living and memory care residents; they include access to sunlight, views of green space (trees, gardens, ponds), privacy, autonomy, and a non-institutionalized atmosphere.
The green care farm model is most promising as it not only supports person-centered care, but residents also share meaningful engagement by participating in planting, tending crops, feeding livestock, weeding, and harvesting in various environments.
Residents are not sheltered in a particular area; daily activities occur in the community kitchen, gardens, stables, and farmyard- promoting a sense of contribution while optimizing physical and cognitive well-being for residents and care staff.
Imagine for a moment: Irene had moved to a green care farm, where she could share her stories of the bayou while sitting comfortably outdoors by a pond filled with nature's bounty?
Pearl (age 82) is widowed, and her family lives far away. Pearl lives on a fixed income, and she spends more than 50% of her income on housing. Pearl has forgone groceries or medication at times to pay her rent. Last year Pearl fractured her hip from a fall, now uses a walker, and cannot drive.
A few months ago, an opening came available at ECO Generation Park. Pearl now lives in an eco-universal design micro cottage (rent averages $400-800 per month) and she adores her new neighbors.
Pearl loves the raised garden bed filled with aromatic herbs in front of her cottage. Pearl enjoys the relaxing feeling she gets when a breeze brings a serene and floral smell from the lavender into her new home.
Pearl works three days per week with guest services to check-in arrivals to the Gypsy Wagon Camp. Pearl no longer feels isolated, and she enjoys the extra income she is earning while meeting new friends.
While small-scale memory care and assisted living communities have outdoor areas, they are often not used for daily activities.
Research has shown residents living in green care farms are more socially engaged, have a more active everyday life, have better nutrition, and require less medication.
Green care farms are typical in the Netherlands and Norway, though we have yet to adopt this model of living and care here in the States. There are now over three decades of research on the benefits of green care farms.
By linking the physical environment with therapeutic goals, people living with dementia, assisted living residents, care managers, staff, community directors, and family members can benefit.
As an eco-gerontologist, I look forward to co-creating the first intergenerational green care farm in a pilot community here in the United States. We have a plethora of vast landscapes that are ideal for this model of living, learning, and earning.
Our current models of living and care are outdated, and care professionals are leaving their jobs by the thousands; underpaid, understaffed, overworked, and underappreciated seems to be the common theme, and the problems have only gotten worse since the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our systems of care are long overdue for a complete revolution.
Imagine for a moment: The care team lives on the property, in community, with residents in their own micro homes? Earning a dignified income and providing care for their 'neighbors'; assisted living and memory care residents?
Jenna, 28, is a single mom with a four-year-old daughter. Jenna lives in a 600sq ft. micro-home at ECO-Generation Park. Jenna works as a care manager for assisted living residents and helps with the dementia care farm. Her daughter attends the ECO Generation Park school, many of the programs are led by older residents. Jenna earns a dignified income, has a lovely micro-home, lives, works, and learns in a nurturing community-based environment.
Jenna and her daughter volunteer in the Community Kitchen on Saturdays, preparing farm-to-table meals for guests and residents like buckwheat pancakes with home-grown large and luscious blueberries with wildflower honey. Residents living in assisted living and memory care apply labels to the honey jars later sold at nearby farmer's markets.
Jenna's daughter 'Katie' loves feeding the chickens and goats at the dementia care farm. Her friend 'Jerry' (72, with vascular dementia) taught her the ropes of harvesting chicken eggs.
One way to kickstart the green care movement is to help those working in long-term care fall in love with nature and learn to prioritize 'vitamin Nature' for themselves, their families, and those they provide care.
The therapeutic benefits of nature are well known, and even just ten minutes in a natural area positively affects physical and mental health. Studies on gardening activities (digging, raking, planting, weeding, watering, harvesting) have shown that gardening improves physical functioning as a low-to-moderate physical activity in older adults.
In addition, gardening boosts the immune system, increases muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and even reduces blood pressure, cholesterol, and waist circumference! And the fresh outdoor air is a fantastic way to get vitamin N and D!
Imagine for a moment: How different the care we provide would be if a large portion of it were done outdoors, in a garden, working with horses, or in a greenhouse planting and harvesting goodness? We all need nature, yet our models of care and living deprive not only residents of nature but also deprive us all.
Meet Sam and Daniel:
Sam is a second-year graduate student in Occupational Therapy. Sam is living and learning at ECO Generation Park for the summer semester. Sam stays in a gulf stream vintage cruiser at the RV park and assists with training protocols and programing for the dementia care farm. Sam is fascinated with the biodynamic farm and garden practices at the park and is learning how to integrate therapy programming with local farms when he returns to his home State of Indiana.
Daniel is also a graduate student and has lived at ECO Generation Park for nearly one year. Daniel studies eco-architecture and is helping design and build eco-friendly micro homes for residents.
Daniel and Sam learn a lot from each other and their experience living and learning at the park. Both Daniel and Sam hope to one day co-create an ECO Generation Park in their hometowns.
ECO Generation Park
View The Vison:
Monica Eastway, M.S.
Founder, ECO Generation Park
Live Learn Grow