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Bringing the joy of gardening to local seniors

Jun 23, 2017

horticultural therapy program students at Lakeview with staff and a resident in front of a raised garden bed

Credit: Delaware Valley University. From Left: DelVal faculty member Nancy Minich, DelVal student Joan Stelmach, Lakeview Life Enhancement Coordinator Nancy Winthrop, Lakeview resident Velma DiRoberto, DelVal student Sharon Lohse and DelVal student Pinkky Kanabar. 

Delaware Valley University horticultural therapy students are helping local seniors enjoy the many therapeutic benefits of gardening. The University recently worked with Pine Run Lakeview, an assisted living facility, to plant a new, raised garden bed. The raised bed allows residents at Lakeview to wheel their wheelchairs up to the garden or, hold on to the side to interact with the plants.

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

The project is enriching the lives of the residents and also, provided horticultural therapy students with hands-on experience. Five DelVal horticultural therapy students have been involved in the project.

“This is such a wonderful experience,” said Joan Stelmach, a DelVal student. “I just love it. They’re so sweet and you get to do things with them that they used to do. They have a lot of memories with plants.”

Stelmach, a project manager for a software company, decided to pursue horticultural therapy after she was diagnosed with cancer.

“It feeds my soul,” said Stelmach. “It really makes me happy to go to class. Nature is so important to healing. I found that out myself.”

Stelmach wants to help people with her certificate and enjoys working with both seniors and students with autism.

The horticultural therapy students are part of a nine-credit program. In the second course, they start working with clients. The students grew plants for the raised bed in a DelVal greenhouse and worked with the seniors to transplant them this May. 

To become a registered horticultural therapist, a student must first have a bachelor’s degree and complete certain undergraduate course requirements in horticulture and psychology. They then complete the certificate program and do 480 hours of experience under the supervision of a registered horticultural therapist. The process typically takes about one to two years for someone who already has a bachelor’s. 

Nancy Minich, a registered horticultural therapist, teaches DelVal’s certificate program. 

“We want students to get experience working with diverse populations,” said Minich. “They have worked with autistic students through the Bucks County Audubon Society, veterans through the Philadelphia VA and seniors through local long-term care facilities. It’s a win win. Students get experience and clients get enrichment.”

Minich said the new raised garden bed provides several benefits for the seniors including: social engagement, sensory therapy and practice with skills like hand-eye coordination. 

“Gardening allows the residents to be part of something meaningful and important,” said Minich. “It also helps them acclimate to the facility. We used a lot of herbs and the smells provide sensory stimulation that increases brain function and evokes past pleasant memories. Hand-eye coordination slows down as we age so, we work with them on that.”

She said just caring for something can also be beneficial to mental health. 

“They can pull the weeds out,” said Minich. “They still have that need to nurture.”

Learn more about DelVal's horticultural therapy certificate program.