Master Gardener Designs ‘Healing Gardens’

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Many people enjoy spending time in a well-kept garden. For people with Alzheimer’s disease, a sensory garden could provide a soothing environment that evokes a sense of calm.

That’s why Jim Sollecito, owner of Sollecito Landscape Nursery in Syracuse, has begun designing what he calls “healing gardens” on private and commercial properties.

Sollecito is New York state’s first lifetime-certified senior landscape professional. He has more than 45 years in the industry. This breadth of knowledge enables him to create gardens that appeal to all the senses.

He plans the flower varieties so they provide visual and scent appeal continually all season. He also uses sculpture, from traditional to brightly painted bicycles.

Wind chimes and fountains are among the auditory accruements. Recycling items such as kitchen hand tools or bicycle parts in the wind chimes adds a touch of whimsy.

Plantings of Juneberries and other edibles appeal to the sense of taste.

Varied surfaces, from stone walkways to turf to wooden benches add textural appeal.

“We have a display garden here and it’s not much of a stretch to add movement, sound and scents to transform it into a healing garden,” Sollecito said.

He also designs sensory gardens for general stress relief and relaxation.

Sollecito has consulted with professionals in Alzheimer’s care to select what elements would work the best for these clients.

“Sights and smells of a familiar plant can trigger happy memories and topics of conversation to share with the family,” Sollecito said. “I have relatives that have had dementia, so I know firsthand the types of things that are positive.”

Cathy James, co-chairwoman of the New York State Alzheimer’s Association Coalition, said that Sollecito is on the right track.

“A sound or smell puts you back into an experience,” James said. “That’s how our experiences cause us to categorize experiences. Some are more auditory; others are more olfactory. Anything to cause us to awaken memories helps.”

A sensory garden could also give people with Alzheimer’s disease a means of reconnecting with gardening again.

“We hear from caregivers often that they want activities, like, ‘Mom used to enjoy gardening,’” James said. “This type of experience can help an individual.”

James also said that caregivers may enjoy the experience and chance to relax as well, and a sensory garden may be a place to enjoy together if they choose.

As Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases progress, some people are aware of the disease process.

“It can be an incredibly frustrating experience,” said Orion Roeder, director of recreation at PACE CNY. “Compensating with sensory engagement is one way for individuals to feel empowered and trigger pathways to long-term memory.

“A sensory garden offers a dynamic experience that engages every sense, and is immersive in the natural world.”

She said that this kind of experience may trigger long-term memories, from childhood mud pies to planting their own gardens in adulthood.

In the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, when memories don’t come readily, sensory input associated with happy memories can still generate positive emotions, she said.

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