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Inspīr Partners with Rusk Rehabilitation Horticultural Therapy Program


Nature is incorporated into every aspect of Inspīr, from our lush common spaces and beautiful gardens to the large window boxes that adorn our Terra and Oceana floors. These green spaces not only provide a connection with the natural world but also lend themselves beautifully to nature-centered experiences. We have recently partnered with Rusk Rehabilitation’s Horticultural Therapy Program at NYU Langone Health to introduce the benefits of Horticulture Therapy to our Oceana residents. 

Gardens and flora have long served as calming agents. From ancient times, philosophers and scientists have extolled the role of horticulture in mood enhancement and thought clarity, and through evidence-based research, we now understand how direct contact with plants can help guide a person’s focus away from stress, stimulate the senses, and enhance mood and overall quality of life.

Susanne Bengtsson, Oceana Program Director, says, “There is something about being able to touch the dirt, feel the different textures of the plants, that can be soothing as well as stimulating for our Oceana residents. Dementia-related illnesses impact all of our five senses, so when we have the opportunity to stimulate many of these senses through one experience, it can be increasingly beneficial to the resident.”

For many, gardening has been a pastime that has brought great joy. The acts of weeding, planting, picking, smelling, and watering, stimulates long-term recall with familiar tasks from the past. Additionally, gardening strengthens the powers of observation and attention to detail. These faculties are not purely intellectual. They boost the quality of personal interactions by overcoming distraction and lengthening attention spans. Perhaps most importantly, horticultural therapy gives its beneficiaries a sense of being needed, of being necessary to the life of another living thing. 

We sat down with Gwenn Fried, Manager of Horticultural Therapy Services at Rusk Rehabilitation, to gain insight into how their programming will work inside Inspīr. 

Tell us about your background and why you have pursued horticultural therapy?

After college, while working in the business world, I was taking a master gardener training program and heard about horticultural therapy. I decided to pursue HT as a career, and went to New York Botanical Garden to get the specific education and certificate I needed to work in the field. I started working part-time in an Alzheimer’s day program along with HIV/AIDS and mental health programs. I joined NYU Langone Health System 24 years ago and am currently the Manager of Horticultural Therapy Services. We run programs for many patient populations, including an Alzheimer’s and dementia group for individuals living with middle-to-late stages of dementia and their caregivers.

Why is it so important for physical, cognitive, social, and emotional functioning?

Nature is an important door to maintaining function and engagement in people of all ages. It is non-judgmental, allowing for nurturing. Research has proven that interaction with nature reduces stress and improves cognitive function. 

Could you explain how it will help residents in Oceana?

Residents in Oceana have so much to offer, yet they are facing challenges. Although cognitive memory may be declining, an individual with memory issues can still make both procedural and emotional memories. The horticultural therapy program is designed to take advantage of these skills and keep residents engaged and active. The program provides a process that is concrete. Each session, the featured plant or activity will change, but the process will remain the same so group members will feel familiarity from session to session. They will habituate the steps, find success, and maintain a focus of control. We also build a relationship by having one person and an assistant for most sessions. The familiarity of the friendly faces of the therapists helps the residents feel comfortable. That, paired with the therapist who knows how to tailor the sessions to meet the needs of the residents, results in a positive experience.  

Could you walk me through a typical programming experience that you will offer to our residents?

We will offer a wide variety of sessions to residents of Oceana tailored to the time of year. Sessions will begin with an introduction to give assurance to all who are participating. Following the introduction, we’ll use an icebreaker to get participants excited about the process. It may include passing a plant around or an item from nature that triggers sensory stimulation and/or a discussion. Finally, we use a step-by-step interactive planting activity with processing. One final activity will signal to the participants that the session is coming to an end.  

Partnering with Rusk Rehabilitation Horticultural Therapy Program gives residents the opportunity to not only be more engaged and active but also allows them to enjoy our gardens at the SkyPark, in our courtyard, and appreciate the window boxes on individual floors. 

 As with so much here at Inspīr, we live life with intention, and our programming is no exception.  

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