Growing new life

Orla Concannon was tasked to develop a business plan as part of her graduate coursework. When challenged to solve a problem, she thought of her friend, Carol, who had limited access to the outdoors.

Carol lit up when they went for walks along Puget Sound. She became a driving force for Concannon as that assignment grew into Eldergrow, a startup company dedicated to bringing the outdoors in for long-term care residents.

“I’ve always loved the elder population,” Concannon says to I Advance Senior Care. “I also love nature. I’m a big advocate for the outdoors. While working in senior care, I saw the opportunity to connect my two passions—nature and our elders—and created Eldergrow.”

While finishing up her Healthcare Leadership Executive MBA, Concannon entered Seattle University’s 17th annual Harriet Stephenson Business Competition, where she won the 1st place audience award and 2nd place judges award. Eldergrow also completed a six-month stay at the University of Washington’s Jones & Foster Accelerator Program for innovative startups.

Eldergrow seems to have found suitable conditions for growth. Concannon started a pilot program, but it ended early. The provider quickly converted to customer because, as “the general manager told me, ‘Families are over the moon, and it sells beds,’” Concannon says, adding, “It’s crass, but that’s what she said.”

Business has been growing ever since its launch in September 2015. The company has formed national partnerships with Merrill Gardens, Leisure Care and Legend Senior Living and has a presence in six states.

Eldergrow is taking root because it fills a need, Concannon says. Before going back to school and founding Eldergrow, she worked as a marketing director for Aegis Senior Living. She saw firsthand the sadness of residents who could no longer garden or who missed the gardens they spent years cultivating.

“Eldergrow is a salt of the earth innovation, and there is an opportunity and a need to connect people with nature,” she says. “I saw an open space. I also saw nature deprivation inside the communities. Many of the residents, because of mobility and weather, weren’t able to enjoy Mother Nature.”

The company has built 4-foot-by-2-foot mobile raised garden beds accessible for seated, wheeled or standing residents. The gardens are economically friendly, sustainably sourced and energy efficient. The company uses organic and pesticide-free soil, non-toxic and safe to touch plants—no succulents or cacti. The indoor gardens use timed red and blue colored grow lights, reusable water and fans to circulate the air. Eldergrow offers three different garden bed ownership models: rent, buy or rent to own, the most popular option.

In addition to the garden beds on safety-locking wheels, the company offers evidence-based horticulture therapy. Concannon partnered with the Washington State University Extension Master Gardener Program, a nationwide volunteer community of educators who provide resources for home gardeners. Eldergrow developed original subscription-based curriculum taught by local educators. 

“It’s an all-inclusive horticulture therapy program,” Concannon says. “Our team of educators bring fresh energy into the community as well as expertise about the plants. We’re building relationships with the residents.”

Educators visit long-term care communities to teach twice monthly classes on horticulture, culinary, educational and garden art specific to the residents’ needs, interest and cognition. The curriculum directly connects to and builds over the course of the plants’ growth cycle.

“Residents grow something from seed and later they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor,” Concannon says. “They make a culinary dish and get cognitive stimulation from learning about why is that salad called a Caprese salad—it’s because it started off on Capri, an island off Italy.”

Residents could learn to grow basil and tomatoes, then harvest the plants to make a pizza margherita or a Caprese salad. They have also decorated garden art stones, drawn watercolors, made lavender closet sachets, pressed flowers and crafted botanical stationery from those pressed flowers. They even adapted a NASA study about what plants best purified the air, a side benefit of the indoor gardens.

During classes, educators evaluate resident participation. They document motor skill usage, cognitive stimulation and sensory stimulation to measure outcomes, which can then be shared with administrators and loved ones.

Gardening has proven health benefits, too. Researchers have found the act of gardening improves mood, motor skills, sleep and self-esteem while also reducing heart rate, agitation, falls, depression, isolation and dementia risk factors.

Residents get their hands dirty while tending the gardening. But it’s more than the act of gardening, Eldergrow offers residents a tangible and tactile connection to nature as well as something to look forward to.

A majority, but not all, gardeners are women, and Concannon says a majority of her clients are in independent living, assisted living and memory care facilities. Many residents have either worked on a farm, owned a farm or grown their own food. They are attuned to working the land and often mourn the loss of their garden when they leave their homes.

Concannon says they ask those residents for help with tilling the soil and pruning the plants. The added responsibility instills pride and self-worth, and the work itself can give residents a sense of peace and serenity. 

“The gardens provide a real sense of purpose,” she says. “They give residents a reason to get out of bed. That’s the heart of Eldergrow.”

A nurse once told Concannon she could see the garden from her desk. She noticed residents came throughout the day to check on the plants and watch them grow and change. 

Nature and the body

The benefits of working the land are well documented. In 2014, the University of Washington conducted a literature review of 99 studies on the benefits of nature and healing in the healthcare environment. Here are some findings:
  • Daily gardening reduced dementia risk factors by 36 percent.
  • People with dementia who had access to gardens were less likely to display aggression or experience injuries and had improved sleep patterns, balanced hormones and decreased agitation.
  • Patients with clinical depression who participated in routine therapeutic gardening experienced a reduction in depression severity and increased attention span that lasted up to three months after the program ended.
  • Patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain who participated in a four-week horticultural therapy program saw an increase in mental and physical health as well as improved ability to cope with chronic pain.
  • Hospital patients with plants in their room displayed less fatigue and pain, shorter hospitalization, less anxiety and higher hospital and room satisfaction.

The gardens are a place where residents and families can go during visits and can serve as a redirect tool for agitated residents with dementia. The gardens themselves are as much a focal point as the televisions or aquariums in lobbies or common rooms. As an added benefit, the gardens can travel around the facility year-round.

“I worked in senior care,” Concannon says. “A lot of places have beautiful courtyards. I saw that with my own eyes. What I also saw is these outdoor gardens were not available 12 months a year, they required special staff supervision and, in many cases, the residents couldn’t go outside without assistance or supervision. I think horticulture therapy will become a new standard in senior care the way that music and art therapy is.”

Eldergrow offers residents choice, autonomy and independence. The facility gets the garden, and residents choose what they grow themselves from a selection of flowers, herbs and vegetables. They get ownership and pride right from the beginning, Concannon says. 

And, over time, the plants are rotated out. Some plants are replanted or repotted around the community. Residents can even gift them to loved ones. Concannon says one community grew sunflowers and transplanted them into pots when they were too tall and about to knock the grow lights. One woman gave her sunflowers to her great-grandson to plant, and he is now responsible for watering them.  

“When in that environment can you go to the store and actually buy a gift for your great-grandson or your daughter?” Concannon says. “It’s difficult. It doesn’t happen, unfortunately. But to watch the residents gift something that they grew themselves to visiting family members is priceless. There’s nothing like it.”

Concannon says she knew she was on to something when she and three women were transplanting baby spider plants. She had some plant labels in her bag and asked if the women if they wanted to name the plants. The women chose Hope, Life and Sweetheart. 

“I knew there was something magical and spiritual happening,” Concannon says. “We are providing a special experience for residents.”

Topics: Activities , Alzheimer's/Dementia , Articles , Operations