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Senior Gardens: Beneficial Harvest

By Suzanne Labry
Contributing Writer

Back in 2010, 96 percent of 50-year-olds and half of 64-year-olds who responded to a Del Webb Baby Boomer Survey stated that the term “senior citizen” did not apply to them because they didn’t “feel” like a senior. When asked to define when “old age” begins, both the oldest and youngest people surveyed selected ages well beyond theirs at the time. The youngest boomers said a person becomes old at age 78, while the oldest boomers said old age begins at 80. Obviously, the exact point at which a person becomes a senior citizen varies in the eye of the beholder (to mangle the old phrase), and if you’re anything like me, you probably think the term applies to someone other than you. I remember my stepmother, deep into her 80s at the time, paying visits to the “old folks” at her local nursing home. But governments have to place a stake in the ground somewhere on this thorny issue, and the City of Austin has targeted its “senior” programs and services for people 50 years of age and older. One such project is the Parks and Recreation Department’s flourishing community gardening program at several of the Senior Activity Centers located throughout the city.

The first Senior Community Garden began in 2006 at the South Austin Senior Activity Center (SASAC). West Baxter had recently been hired as that center’s Program Recreation Specialist, bringing with him an interest and experience in horticultural therapy. In a lucky happenstance, a few years later the St. David’s Foundation Community Fund created a funding branch called Health’s Angels to address the growing needs of the aging population in Central Texas. In 2012, Health’s Angels established a garden program and began providing money to SASAC for its garden. With financial support from Health’s Angels and guidance from West Baxter, SASAC’s Garden of Eatin’ has been going and growing strong ever since.

Health’s Angels has provided materials and labor to build the raised beds that make up the garden. Health’s Angels also contracts technical assistance from Resolution Gardens, a full-service landscaping company with a special focus on food whose motto is “Grow Food — We’ll Help.” Yuki Takata, the Resolution Gardens coordinator and teacher who learned organic gardening in Japan, brings fresh soil, seeds, plants and gardening know-how to the Center, and helps the Senior Community Gardeners decide what and when to plant. A small greenhouse with seedling grow tables allows gardeners to start transplants. “We’re building the garden in five phases,” Baxter explained. “Every year we expand the garden and add more things as space allows.”

“We have about 26 people who participate in the program, but we average eight or nine each week,” he continued. “We meet every Monday morning, year-round, and some of the participants are experienced gardeners, while others are just learning. The people come from all walks of life — we’ve had everyone from a homeless person to someone who drives a Tesla. They plant, weed, water and generally tend the garden.” The gardeners — all of whom volunteer their time — mirror the neighborhood’s diverse population and the vegetables grown also reflect the area’s multicultural makeup.

Thi Nguyen, who is 66, is a newer volunteer, having recently moved into the neighborhood. His hobby is gardening and he enjoys volunteering for something he loves and meeting other people who live in the area. Sixty-eight-year-old Margie Mendez and her 70-year-old husband, Robert, are regular volunteers. They live within walking distance of the Center and enjoy working outside and getting to know their neighbors. Robert has used his carpentry skills to build composting bins for the garden. “It makes me feel good to come here,” said Margie. “I love to plant the seeds and it’s exciting to see things grow. We like to eat the vegetables and have other people eat them, too. Plus, it’s good to see familiar faces when we work. I go into relaxed mode when I come here.”

Those are exactly the responses that the program was designed to elicit. “The idea is to promote healthy living, a sense of community and a better quality of life for the people who participate,” Baxter explained. “Working in a garden helps people find commonality. No matter what their backgrounds are, in the garden they learn to work together in harmony.”

The garden’s produce is free and available to all, not just to those who grow it. The garden is not fenced, and Baxter has seen people at the Center’s picnic tables pick lettuce to go on their sandwiches. He says that the only problems they’ve experienced with “thievery” have come from neighborhood pets, such as goats and potbellied pigs, and wildlife living near the Activity Center.

The garden at the South Austin Senior Activity Center has been so successful that two other Parks and Recreation Senior Centers in the city have introduced garden programs of their own. Health’s Angels also underwrites the Dottie Jordan Senior Activity Center and Conley-Guerrero Senior Activity Center gardens. Each one is autonomous and reflects the neighborhood in which it operates, including the desires and commitment levels of the people who participate in the program.

The Joy & Friendship Garden at Dottie Jordan Senior Activity Center in East Austin was started in 2013 and is overseen by Program and Recreation Specialist John Harros. About 30 individuals from the neighborhood participate on a regular basis, with a core group consisting of Jean Allen, Betty Bobo, Jean Hughes and Mary Martin taking the most active roles in what they call “the garden club,” with Betty Bobo and Jean Hughes acting as unofficial co-coordinators. “Someone is in the garden every day all year round,” said Harros. “They’ve really taken ownership of the program.”

The entire Dottie Jordan club meets two times a month — once to work outside in the garden and once to harvest what’s growing. Then they go inside and cook what they pick. In addition to dishes that can be prepared and eaten immediately, they’ve also preserved their bounty by making dill pickles, pickled okra and sauerkraut. “The other day we made kale chips,” said Betty Bobo. “The garden has helped all of us expand our diets to eat different foods.” The group also tries to expand the food knowledge of others in the neighborhood. The Center is located in a park, and when children come with their parents after school to play at the park’s playground, they will often visit the garden. Jean Allen is ready for them. “I’ll pull a carrot out of the ground and show them — a lot of those kids have no idea that a carrot comes from the ground and not from a bag,” she said. “And then they’ll get interested. They’ll point to something and say, ‘What’s that?’ And then I’ll tell them to come inside the fence and read the sign that tells what vegetable is growing. We try to make it fun and educational.”

Since the garden was formed, the Dottie Jordan garden club has also benefited the Activity Center and surrounding park by participating in park-beautification efforts such as landscaping and trash pickup. The group is reaching out to schools in the area to see about forming partnerships with students. And everyone involved agrees that the sense of community is stronger now that the garden is part of the neighborhood. The comments from the core members sum it up: “We’re like a salad and we’re all mixed together,” said Jean Allen. “There’s a lot of oxygen here,” said Mary Martin. “I’ve made good friends doing this and it’s so relaxing and peaceful in the garden,” said Jean Hughes.

The City of Austin Parks and Recreation Senior Activity Center gardening program is not the only beneficiary of Health’s Angels support. Taylor Gutierrez, Community Affairs and Database Coordinator with St. David’s Foundation, notes that Health’s Angels now underwrites 11 gardens in the five-county region that it serves (Bastrop, Caldwell, Hayes, Travis and Williamson). “Our mission is to work with individuals and organizations to improve the lives of older adults and their caregivers in the counties that we serve,” she said. “We do this through education, volunteerism and philanthropy, and the garden programs are a great opportunity to combine those three things. The education aspect is provided by Resolution Gardens, which provides a dedicated representative for each of our 11 gardens. They guide participants using an all-organic approach from planting through harvesting, and teach gardening basics from start to finish. Health’s Angels members volunteer at garden events, and of course the philanthropy aspect is achieved by underwriting each of the garden programs.”

“All of the gardens are different,” Gutierrez continued. “Each one produces different things and they really reflect the demographics of the populations they serve.”

AGE of Central Texas, a regional nonprofit organization that offers licensed adult daycare programs in Austin and Round Rock, serves more than 3,000 older adults who are dealing with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease or memory loss, and also provides support for their caregivers. Both the Austin and Round Rock locations have gardens created and maintained with the support of Health’s Angels and Resolution Gardens, and the gardens are a part of the therapeutic and social activities that AGE provides. At the organization’s Round Rock campus, Health’s Angels has funded the construction of 14 raised beds, four in the front of the facility and 10 in the back. Resolution Gardens does most of the planting and maintenance of the AGE gardens, but the 37 or so adults who are members of what AGE Williamson County Program Director Lauren Greenwade calls the “social club” are active participants in watering the plants. “They love to come outside and be in the garden, and the garden is an important part of our exercise program,” she said. “We make it a routine part of their day and we also send the vegetables and herbs home with them to broaden their diets.”

Sometimes the issues faced by a member can produce special challenges for the AGE garden. “We have one member who suffers from obsessive/compulsive disorder. He loves the garden and he is fond of ‘rearranging’ the vegetable beds so that whatever is growing gets all bunched up together, usually destroying the roots in the process,” said Greenwade. “Resolution Gardens has worked with us to plant some hardier, deep-rooted plants (such as potatoes) that the member can’t move as easily.”

“The garden has not only benefited the population we serve, but it has also benefited AGE as a whole,” she continued. “The garden has really made our facility beautiful — a place where people want to come and spend time. In fact, it is a great marketing tool for us. We have 28 people on a waiting list. The garden is good for everyone!”

Community gardens such as the ones described here for seniors have been shown to produce all sorts of side benefits, such as fostering the development of a community identity and spirit. They bring diverse people together from a wide variety of backgrounds, help prevent crime and add beauty and green space to neighborhoods, particularly in low-income areas. Some studies have indicated that community gardens even increase property values in the immediate vicinity where they are located.

In 2010, researchers from Texas A&M and Texas State universities surveyed older adult gardeners and non-gardeners on their perceptions of personal life satisfaction and levels of physical activity. The primary focus of the study was to determine whether gardening had a positive impact on perceptions of quality of life and levels of physical activity of older adults. The researchers found that gardeners showed significantly better outcomes in overall life-satisfaction scores, and higher levels of daily physical activity, energy levels and nutrition than did non-gardeners. Other studies have shown that gardening can reduce levels of cortisol, a hormone that affects stress, high blood pressure and glucose levels, while increasing serotonin, a chemical in the brain that helps to put you in a good mood and helps you feel calm. By increasing exercise, gardening has also been shown to boost the immune system, reduce risk of dementia and slow down the aging process.

Of course none of this is really news to those of us who love to garden. We all understand that gardening is good for the body, the mind and the spirit — no matter our age.

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