Merwick wins senior living landscape architecture award

Most senior living and rehabilitation facilities offer therapy, but not always in an outdoor garden, complete with real-world obstacles. And in Vendome Healthcare Media’s inaugural Landscape Architecture Competition, no one achieved the Senior Living category of therapy and landscape design better than Merwick Care and Rehabilitation Center, Plainsboro, N.J.

Merwick, a Windsor Healthcare Community, designed a Gold-winning therapy garden that combines landscape beauty with mental inspiration while providing the environmental challenges that will help its residents train for real life. It’s a vibrant “rehab confidence course” of sorts—a multipart garden that snakes among all the other buildings on the campus and is viewable from many windows (including the lounge areas and the gym), while offering many subtle therapy challenges.

The garden design was inspired by Joshua and Michael Jacobs, two brothers at this family-owned community, a facility campus that was designed from the ground up and opened in early 2011.

“We always promoted the idea of having our residents get outside,” Michael Jacobs says. “The Plainsboro campus was a unique opportunity for us, because we basically had a blank drawing board. It expanded the minds of our employees and our design team.”

Designing the garden meant making it available to all residents and making it accessible from multiple entry points—a truly integral space. Plenty of benches are available for resting and conversation, but this garden is secretly about work.

Amid the flowers and aesthetic greenery, this garden is paved with the surfaces and obstacles found in the real world. The garden’s landscape design includes sections of grass, gravel, brick, sand, rubber, bark mulch, asphalt and concrete so residents can gain confidence on various surfaces. One paved area is deliberately curved and graded, allowing residents to practice maneuvering their legs, walkers or wheelchairs along sloped concrete pavement and over concrete curbs.

“It’s wonderful to provide rehab therapy for someone who had a hip replacement or a stroke in a beautifully climate-controlled space with a smooth floor,” Joshua Jacobs says. “But where, outside of a facility or hospital, do you really see that? Everyone wants to go home eventually, so why not create a real-world environment that is supervised and safe, so therapists can help people practice on difficult surfaces and build their confidence?”


The potting station With potting bins designed at wheelchair height, residents can engage in hand strengthening and dexterity therapy, using an enjoyable activity that doesn’t seem like “work.” Quite a different mind-set from squeezing a rubber ball or using a machine in a gym.

The gazebo It’s a beautiful central, shaded space to relax and socialize, if you can open the doors. Each end of the gazebo includes a different type of lightweight door, so residents can practice entering and exiting doorways on their own, including while using a wheelchair. Therapist assistance is always available, of course.

The road test At one end of the garden, a parked therapy car allows residents to practice one of the biggest challenges, especially for those who have had hip or shoulder replacements: Simply getting in and out of a vehicle.

Many long-term and post-acute communities have landscape gardens that offer serenity and reflection, but Merwick’s therapy garden gets down to the real work of getting back home. Many of Merwick’s 7,000-sq-foot garden’s spaces are meant to engage both long-term and short-term residents, helping them to encourage each other, all while practicing for the world beyond the facility’s own walls.



No resident at Merwick is forced to use the outdoor therapy garden, but most residents enjoy using it, the Jacobs brothers say. The integration of the garden across the entire campus and the garden’s design for mixed use allows long-term residents and short-term rehab residents to encourage each other in the activities of daily life.

“A lot of buildings were built in an era when short-term rehab wasn’t a big part of the business,” Joshua Jacobs says. “These shared [garden] resources help both types of residents at the same time. Certain residents are working toward short-term goals in this garden, but they can interact with long-term residents and sync together these two segments of our business.”

The Merwick therapy garden cost $150,000 to build, but the Jacobs brothers say it was well worth it, and add that other facilities with smaller acreage can still build therapy gardens that achieve inspiring therapy goals. “It’s about a philosophy to being committed to spaces that are designed for multiuse, and to promote positive outdoor activity, and to make those areas easily accessible from many different spaces,” Joshua Jacobs says.

So, what happens to Merwick’s therapy garden in winter? This is the first winter season for the garden since its opening, but the Jacobs brothers are excited about maintaining the garden’s therapy value. “Living in New Jersey means walking in the snow,” Joshua says. “So why can’t we offer therapy about walking in the snow? We’ll have a therapist on each arm, and we can provide the opportunity for residents to practice that skill, if they wish.”

Click on the image above to see a photo gallery of Merwick’s garden project.

Vendome Healthcare Media’s annual Landscape Architecture Competition includes categories for Senior Living, Acute Care and Behavioral Healthcare. To see who won this year’s awards and learn how to enter next year’s competition, see the 2013 Landscape Architecture for Healthcare Communities awards issue.




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