A Therapy Garden: Adult Day Center of Somerset County for Alzheimer’s

By Caroline Bloomfield | August 26, 2021
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by Caroline Bloomfield
August 26, 2021

The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that “6.2 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2021.” For so many whose families have been touched by Alzheimer’s, day therapy centers provide a welcome respite for caregivers and families, as well as being a great resource for those diagnosed with this debilitating condition. In this environment  “members” can have fun and exercise their thinking abilities, as well as touch and experience living things safely under the care and supervision of loving volunteers like Elizabeth Spinelli. 

Ms. Spinelli, “Beth,” is the creative force behind the Adult Day Center of Somerset County’s beautiful garden, a rich source of sensual stimulation for those who are living with this debilitating disease. Gardening Know How chose Beth and this Bridgewater, NJ Therapy Garden for a 2020 sponsorship.

The Garden Gets a Makeover

Beth’s neighbor was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She brought her neighbor to the Center for a visit in 2019.  What Beth saw there was a neglected garden plot with an accumulation of leaves and debris a foot deep. The garden had not been maintained for five years but, as a long-time member of the Bridgewater Garden Club, Beth could tell it had “good bones” in terms of bushes and basic landscaping. With approval from the Center’s Director, she put on her gloves, prayed not to see snakes, and began to clear and clean the area. The daunting project initially took six months to complete. Sixty bags of donated mulch, spread throughout the Garden by ten volunteers, marked the beginning of this newly renovated space that has grown into a lovely Garden, complete with a pergola and fountain.

For the Members

At the Adult Day Center of Somerset County, visitors with Alzheimer’s are never referred to as “patients,” but as “members.” Watching from the window of the Center’s activity room, members enjoy seeing “the garden lady” as Beth weeds, plucks and waters the Garden.  Always accompanied by an aide, members who go outside to visit the garden love touching and experiencing the plants and flowers.  So, Beth collects flowers and greenery from the Garden to create bouquets for the center’s lobby and tables, bringing the garden experience indoors. The garden’s many butterflies and other pollinators enjoy herbs and flowers and provide interest for the members.

The Therapy Garden offers Alzheimer’s members a profound experience of natural beauty and lots of interesting details to explore. Besides the wide variety of plants and flowers, the garden is “tuned in” to Alzheimer’s. Small statues of animal figures looking up from the plants are nestled in the garden.  Stones painted with names of plants are displayed, many of which have been painted by the members themselves. The new fountain replaces the older one, which is now full of plants and flowers. 

The Garden Thrives

This Garden is a pollinator’s paradise, with sage, Echinacea, butterfly bushes, lilacs, roses and hydrangeas. Beth and her volunteers have planted milkweed to encourage the butterflies.  Often a half-dozen or more Monarchs can be seen flitting about, much to the delight of the visiting members.

The Garden has received numerous donations from the community in terms of materials and volunteer time. Four of Beth’s friends from the Garden Club make a weekly visit to split up chores and keep the Garden maintained. One former aide at the Center has turned her attention full-time to the Garden, preferring to work outside. 

COVID and New Bugs

The Garden was open and maintained throughout the entire 18 months that the Center was shut down due to COVID-19. The State of New Jersey has now allowed the Day Center to re-open. Beth tells us our GKH sponsorship funds arrived just in time, as there were many things that needed to be done after such a long stretch of being shut down.

As much as they love to touch and feel what grows in the Garden, members are now trained to be more careful about touching things due to the contagious nature of COVID-19. Even now, with COVID-19 cases rising in NJ, there is concern that the Center may have to close down again.

A current pressing concern at the Garden is a recent infestation of spotted lanternflies. These are invasive creatures which, by the thousands, nest under the bark of trees and jump randomly, causing some real consternation for Beth and the volunteers.  Hopefully, exterminating these bugs will provide another interesting experience for the visitors to the Center.

Beth and her Garden Club friends continue to keep this garden beautiful, all for the delight of those who are touched by this debilitating disease. Unfortunately, the number of Alzheimer’s cases is growing in the United States. Between the years of 2000 and 2019, “deaths from Alzheimer’s have increased 145%.” With all of the pressing issues currently weighing on our society, bringing a bit of joy into the lives of Alzheimer’s sufferers, their families and their caregivers is a noble and wonderful gesture. 

Often entirely unaware of the world’s problems, their need for sensory stimulation and a caring gesture are essential for Alzheimer’s sufferers. Our sincere thanks go out to Beth Spinelli and all who volunteer and donate to the Somerset County Adult Day Center Therapy Garden.

Every year, Gardening Know How awards $1,000 to 20 different, hand-picked garden projects across the United States and Canada. If your community or school garden has a growing, unmet need for more soil, seeds, fertilizers, building materials, or even just help getting the word out about your program, we’re ready and willing to help you meet those needs. As community gardens and school gardening programs spring up all over, we’re happy to do our part to help.

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