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Senior Citizens Cultivate New Life in Their Community Garden

An assisted living center in Tucson boasts a prolific garden where residents find peace and purpose.

By Suzanne Wright

Advanced age often is accompanied by the loss of mobility and memory, and for many seniors, this results in the cessation of favorite pastimes, including the ability to enjoy the outdoors. However, for residents at The Hacienda at the River, an assisted living center in Tucson, the physical challenges that come with aging are not impediments to gardening. David Freshwater, chairman and developer of Watermark Retirement Communities, which manages the facility, made sure of that, spurred by personal motivation to install what he and the staff refer to as a “healing garden.”

“My mother was always in the garden with her roses and lilac bushes,” says Freshwater. “When she was having some mobility and other health issues, I could see the huge difference that an hour in the garden made to her resilience. She moved better; her breathing was easier; she was happier. The plants themselves nurtured her, I think.” 

The garden at The Hacienda, filled with edibles and ornamentals, is having the same positive effects on the residents and their families. 

To bring this innovative outdoor space to fruition, Freshwater tapped Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery for its look and creation and horticulture guide Jason Welborn to manage its programming. 

Coral trumpet and grape vines envelope the entrance to the garden. Landscape designer Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery chose the two climbing plants because of their alternating growing and blooming seasons, ensuring year-round beauty and color.

“Both Elizabeth and Jason were a perfect fit because they understand the deep roots that a garden space can lay down within a community,” says Freshwater. “We knew the landscape had to be comfortable and inviting, and sheltered from the desert summers, but it also needed to be full of inviting plants that each visitor would want to walk right up to and touch and smell.” 

For Przygoda-Montgomery, the opportunity to develop a garden that would help seniors remain active and mentally stimulated was more than just another job. She drew from family experience in bringing the property, which is compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, from concept to reality.  

“My grandfather was in an assisted living home,” says Przygoda-Montgomery. “He was a gardener in a wheelchair, with Parkinson’s disease, who was visually impaired. I was still grieving his death when this project came to me. I put my heart into this design, thinking of things he would enjoy.”

Rather than feeling constrained by the special needs requirements, Przygoda-Montgomery says the challenge sparked her creativity. She drew 50 renditions of the grounds before she and Freshwater were satisfied that the space could accommodate seniors who might not be able to maneuver through complicated landscapes. “Our elders are to be appreciated. I wanted to honor them with a beautiful outdoor space,” she says. 

Aesthetically, the 2,500-square-foot garden has a Spanish colonial mission feel. There are covered, shaded and open areas; a soaring 25-foot vertical growth space; a baptismal basin-turned-fountain; and plenty of seating areas. For the residents and their families, the ability to use and enjoy the surroundings fosters education, engagement and therapy. 

“Being in the garden evokes emotion and brings back memories,” says Przygoda-Montgomery. “If you are visually impaired, you can hear the water and move toward it. If you have difficulties hearing, you can smell the citrus and follow the path. It’s a sensory experience.”

Keeping the plant palette lush yet safe for those with mobility issues, the designer chose such drought-tolerant ornamentals as gaura (Gaura lindheimeri), a butterfly-attracting plant with pink flowers; aromatic lavender; and moss verbena as groundcover. There are no thorny plants on which to prick a finger; even groupings of Agave parryi, with their pointy leaves, are strategically placed in a transitional zone where the garden merges with the desert—safely out of reach. Blooming annuals and perennials provide vivid color, and residents have their own planters, painted rocks and even a decorative wagon, which adds to the garden’s charm. “This is a living, breathing, changing garden,” says Przygoda-Montgomery.  

It’s also a nourishing one. Depending on the season, the garden yields an impressive variety of edibles. Numerous fruit trees dot the property, including desert-friendly citrus such as lemons, limes, kumquats and oranges, along with apples, avocados, bananas, figs, nectarines, mangoes, peaches, papaya and pomegranates. Vegetable plots yield broccoli, cabbage, kale, lettuce, spinach and tomatoes. The residents even grow herbs, including basil, chives, lemongrass, rosemary and oregano. All provide a rich bounty for The Hacienda’s dining services director, Chef John Luzader, whose goal is to encourage healthier eating habits in those who live there.

Przygoda-Montgomery repurposed a 19th-century baptismal basin into a soothing fountain. She surrounded it with Mexican beach pebbles, Catalina boulders and soft, fragrant foliage, including artemesia, pink gaura, Russian sage and desert zinnia.

Staff members also advocate resident participation in the garden—from seed to harvest. Pruning, watering and weeding the plants offers exercise, generates memories and cultivates a sense of home. The seniors also have a sense of pride when they harvest fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables they know will be part of nutritional, tasty dishes, such as bruschetta with tomatoes, salsa and kumquat-studded scones. 

“This is a true farm-to-table experience. Residents appreciate the creativity, connection and continuity the garden provides,” Luzader says, noting that “there have been some really magical moments—the bonding; the expression on somebody’s face; the sensory memories when picking a fresh leaf of basil.”

According to Welborn, gardening gives the seniors a sense of ownership while advancing cognitive function, motor skills, communication with others and a sense of purpose in spite of some loss of independence. “It’s hard to quantify the benefits of being in the fresh air and sunshine, but working with the soil has properties that seem to calm us down,” he explains. “Gardening reduces anxiety and creates a sense of familiarity for memory-care patients.”

For more information, see Sources.

The facility encourages its residents to participate in the planting and growing of flowers and edibles.

Plenty of seating options provide space for relaxing in the outdoor space. Lavender, moss verbena and aloe mix with grape vines and apricot, ice cream banana and peach trees.

Landscape Design for Seniors

Elizabeth Przygoda-Montgomery offers her Top 5 tips for creating a successful garden that will age with its homeowner.
Ensure access. Garden walkways should be wide enough for a wheelchair to maneuver. Bending is difficult, so raised planters—and ample work space—are key. 

Create places of rest. Putting a bench next to a planter allows for moments of stillness, while preserving confidence, independence and safety. Seating near a bush or fountain provides the opportunity to observe birds and butterflies—literally time to stop and smell the flowers.

Consider height. Think about little “helpers” for those with reachability issues. Traditional height work tables may require too much arm lifting. Wheelchair-accessible planters or a grab bar on a wall are easy adaptations. 

Surface matters. Older people often shuffle their feet. Bricks, pavers or steppingstones can shift over time and become a trip hazard. Tight, compacted, level gravel is a better choice. 

Mind boundaries. Falling is the No. 1 risk for all elderly. Many seniors don’t see clearly, and their depth perception may be limited. Use lighting and clear markings of steps or level changes. Consider installing a banister.


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