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50+: Live Better, Longer

Gardening for Health

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How Nature Works Its Charms continued...

There are other benefits to being in nature as well, including exercise, exposure to vitamin D from sunshine, and the capacity of light to counter seasonal depression. And for people in restricted environments or with chronic conditions, the payoffs may even be greater, says Richard Zeisel, president of Hearthstone Alzheimer Care in Lexington, Mass., a company that manages living-treatment residences for people with Alzheimer's disease. "You can either upset people and then give them drugs to relax them, or you can not upset them in the first place."

Hearthstone's approach, in which gardens are an integral part of the residences, dramatically decreases anxiety, agitation, aggression, and social withdrawal among patients, and thus the need for antipsychotic drugs. "It's a practical question: would we rather spend money on drugs, or would we rather spend money on flowers?" Zeisel says.

Nature, the Do-It-Yourself Way

Even seniors whose environments do not include attractive views or actual gardens can get close to nature, says Teresa Hazan, a horticultural therapist at Legacy Health System in Portland, Ore., which provides therapy for patients at local hospitals.

She recommends that senior residences set up outdoor gardens, accessible to all. Three to five large clay pots are enough: one for favorite herbs, one for a shrub or tree, another for flowers or vegetables. A plant in anyone's room can also be healing, she says. When you become dependent on others and have less control over your life, says Hazan, it's very restorative to have something that's dependent on you.

Two Women's Success Stories

A single amaryllis bulb drew Jo Clayton, a science fiction and fantasy writer and author of 35 novels, out of depression when she was struggling with bone cancer, Hazan says. "We spoke about the power of the amaryllis bulb," says Hazan, "and I compared it to the power in her." Clayton, who had never gone outdoors much, began spending time in nature, painting landscapes and resolving issues with family members before her death.

In O. Henry's short story "The Last Leaf," a young Greenwich Village artist is sustained through pneumonia by looking out her window at an ivy vine. The view is a painted one, though the heroine doesn't know this, and it gives her the strength to recover.

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