As published in Dimensions, the Magazine of the UW Alzheimer's Disease Research Center - Fall 2017 (Download the PDF or Read Online)

By Genevieve Wanucha

Gardens, from the rhododendron glen at the Arboretum, to the smallest oasis of nature on a city roof, are places that tell stories. They tell stories without words but rather in a language everyone knows. They talk in sensory flourishes of color, scent, and textures as soft as the flimsy silk of a poppy petal and as prickly as a borage stalk. They tell us in uncomplicated terms of renewal and impermanence, and the value of good soil. The gravel paths tell us how the garden’s creators had hoped we would travel through.

Gardens tell us our own stories, by bringing back our earliest memories of nature, of tying dandelions into chains or pulling at blackberry bushes. In fact, Patty Cassidy, president of the Portland Memory Garden, says the staff intentionally plants red geraniums, daisies, and marigolds because, for some reason of history, those are the flowers that trigger memories for people who were children seven decades ago, and now live with dementia.

Walking in Bradner Gardens / UW MBWC

Every first Friday, a public garden in Seattle turns into this kind of sanctuary. The Garden Discovery Walks, a partnership of Seattle Parks & Recreation and the UW Memory and Brain Wellness Center, is a free program for people with memory loss or dementia and their partners. The group takes an exploratory tour through a garden or community P-Patch, followed by a creative nature-inspired activity.

Our first walk took place on March 3, 2017 in the display gardens of the UW Center for Urban Horticulture, where the heather buds and hellebores tuned us into the early signs of spring growth. By now, we’ve visited six gardens, ranging from Magnuson Park P-Patch with its flowering quince trees, to Wallingford’s Good Shepherd community garden, where one gardener taught us about compost and another picked us bouquets of her alstroemeria lilies. Yet, for the Garden Discovery Walkers, horticultural terminology matters not a whit.

“You know, I can’t go around calling that a whatchamacallit, and that a wing doodle,” said participant Roger Stocker, looking at rose bush—still just thorny branches in March. “But I am seeing this as it is, in the moment.”

Iris in Bradner Gardens/ UW MBWC

 “In the garden, we are more aware of our place within the environment and ecosystem,” says Cayce Cheairs, Dementia-friendly Recreation Specialist of Seattle Parks and Recreation, who co-facilitates this program. “This sense of relationship and place brings a needed sense of belonging to something larger and affirmation of self that are often threatened by the social stigma of dementia.”

The other co-facilitators are Cheryl Petterson, a garden expert who oversaw the design of Bradner Gardens Park with King County Master Gardeners; Laura Rumpf, a certified horticultural therapist; and me, the science writer at the UW ADRC, who loves plants and participating in Seattle’s dementia-friendly community.

At the start, we gather into a circle and turn our eyes to the ‘flower of the month’ specimen. We talk about what we notice upon close, mindful inspection, often surprised by a common flower’s suddenly obvious majesty.

This time provides an opportunity to share an opinion, without expectation or judgment. One participant named Jim said but a few words in the circles, until June’s visit to Bradner Gardens. Of a smoke bush trimming, he said a “tree growing out of a lily pad”; of the nasturtium at July’s visit to the Good Shepherd garden, he saw within it “a sun setting against a red sky.”

Seattle Children's Play Garden / UW MBWC 

Garden Walk participants Frank Stone and his wife Susan met in a hiking organization. Susan remembers how Frank would carry a reference book along on hikes in the Olympics and Cascades to identify plants. He now has dementia, though it hasn’t impacted his love of walking in nature. In fact, he pushes his walker up inclines and over pebbles and stones on the garden paths, moving as fast as anyone.

“On these walks, Frank benefits by being out in the fresh air and getting some exercise early in the day and from being in a supportive and small group of people,” says Susan. “I love the walks as a way of visiting parks and gardens that are delightful and new to me.”

From poet Henry David Thoreau to 18th century physicians, many have noticed the restorative quality of being in nature. Florence Nightingale wrote in her 1859 Notes on Nursing, “It is the unqualified result of all my experience with the sick, that second only to their need of fresh air is their need of light …Put the pale withering plant and human being into the sun, and…each will recover health and spirit.”

Dewey Webster explains the balance between rocks, water, and trees in Seattle Chinese Garden's / UW MBWC

Nurse Nightingale would surely appreciate the idea of horticultural therapy for people with memory loss and dementia. Its practitioners, such as Laura Rumpf, the horticultural therapist who designs the nature-based crafts for our walks, support the bold idea that working with plant materials in a social setting can specifically be a treatment for dementia, as it encourages conversation and self-esteem, reminiscence, and creativity, and taps into intact motor skills.

In fact, a research study started by the Friends of the Boerner Botanical Gardens in Milwaukee County found that participants with Alzheimer’s disease showed increases in social interaction with peers, self esteem, engagement in activities held at their care facilities, interest in the future, and awareness of their environment, after eight sessions of horticultural therapy.

“Is it do-able?” Frank asked as Laura Rumpf brought out terracotta bowls of mint-scented geraniums, clippers, a bucket of soil, and watering can. “Yes, it sure is do-able,” she said, and showed us how to pot cuttings of these plants to bring home and watch take root and grow. We made beautiful wreaths out of the invasive bindweed in Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands. We painted ink on homemade paper using bamboo brushes at West Seattle’s Chinese Garden.

“Horticultural therapy is particularly effective for those living with memory loss because the familiarity of plants and the use of natural materials inspires reminiscence, joy and creativity while calming feelings of confusion and isolation,” says Rumpf.

Making decorative wreaths of bindweed at Rainier Beach Urban Farms and Wetlands. Members of Seattle's African migrant community had just removed this invasive plant from young orchard trees.  / UW MBWC

Time in the garden can also help care partners and family members deal with stress and worry. “Being in nature has always been my most effective de-stressor,” says co-facilitator Cheryl Pettersen. “The walks provide a wonderful mix of serenity, discovery, and inspiration.” In a 2015 study, Stanford scientists found that people who took a nature walk, compared to a city walk, experienced reduced rumination, or those really bad feelings when you mull over and over a problem or mistake. Brain scans revealed a calming effect on the neural pathways of negative emotion.  

This program is part of an evolution of local dementia-friendly nature programs, started out of the grassroots movement Momentia Seattle. In a 2013 community development process in Southeast Seattle, people living with memory loss voiced the idea of “getting one’s hands dirty” in nature, spurring the development of a volunteer gardening opportunity, Fridays at the Farm. Our revamp takes inspiration from the popular ‘Out & About’ walking program and ideas of horticultural therapy. This program is young, but where better to grow than in the garden?

For all of the stories the garden shares with us, people living with dementia teach us the most important lessons. As Cayce Cheairs says, “People with dementia teach us to slow down, tune in more fully, and listen.” In the garden, they teach us that a human sense of wonder in the natural world endures, even when other cognitive faculties begin to wane, and they teach us that those who have lost the words to speak have a lot to say. Sometimes, the garden gives them back. •


The Garden Discovery Walks take place every first Friday at rotating locations, from March - November. To inquire about registration, contact Contact or (206) 615-0100. View Summer 2019 flyer.