When I was first asked to offer nature therapy experiences at a nursing home, I thought I knew what to expect. My mom had been in a nursing home for 13 years, so I had gotten to see and know a lot of the residents during that period. But I was still thinking that it was going to be like my typical guiding, just with a twist. My nursing home experience and comfort helped me a lot, but I had a lot to learn. This was a totally different world of guiding.
The things I was ready for and expecting:
- Participants would fall asleep on and off
- We would be stationary
- They would not remember who I was from one visit to the next
- Some would not remember what we were doing in the middle of doing it
- Their senses of hearing, smelling, taste, and sight may not work as well and things might need to be more intense to be noticeable
- We would be indoors until summer
- Masks, ugh COVID
I was well prepared for my first session with them in the spring. To walk them through their senses, I brought “coastal forest” essential oil which I put on cotton balls for them to smell, created audio files in the forest to play for sound, and video files for sight. That part went ok, I was even blown away when one of the residents was even able to identify the type of tree the scent was.
Noticing what’s in motion didn’t work indoors, that would have to wait til we could get outside. But I brought various pine cones and other forest items for them to touch, feel and get to know. They loved this and I quickly learned to only bring things I was ready to part with, because if they liked something, they were keeping it. The other thing they really liked was my forest video set to music, the birds were hard for them to hear, but to listen to nice music what watching the forest was a treat. Memory invitations at first were hit and miss, some residents really connected with their memories, others not so much; but enough did, that I always include a memory invitation related to whatever nature we are focusing on.
I wasn’t expecting problems with their internet or linking to their big screen, or that no staff would not be there during the session. It was just me and the residents trying to work through all these things together. I wasn’t expecting residents who didn’t speak any English, or who did not have use of their arms (I should have anticipated these things). But I was also not expecting this indoor nature therapy to “work” in the ways it did, nor how that would impact me:
During the memory invitation at a “beach” session, one gentleman, who was usually very quiet and shy, looked up with a big smile on his face and said, “I can feel the sand between my toes.” I have to say, I fell in love with him at that moment.
We had 3 or 4 sessions indoors before we were able to go outside. Several things changed when we got to move to an outside location. The biggest one is that they now remembered me and the types of things we were going to do. I was also getting to know them as individuals, and falling in love with each of them. I figured out how to communicate with my Russian-speaking woman, and she lights up when she sees me now.
Being outdoors allowed us to truly see, hear, and smell what was around us. I brought flowers, both real and wooden, for each resident to interact with. That was such a positive experience for them, beyond anything I imagined. One non-verbal woman lit up and her face just shone with joy; her daughter was there and, with tears in her eyes, said that these were the same flowers her mother grew in her garden. Just look at their faces…
The flowers were such a hit, I decided to try something even more interactive the next month…planting flowers in pots and “playing” with the dirt. It was great, even the folks who did not want to touch the dirt, stuck their hands in and truly enjoyed themselves, they played. Watching the parade of walkers with their potted flowers as they went back to their rooms made my heart sing. But the greatest gift to me is to hear them talking to the staff as they go back to their rooms and hear them excited telling them about what we just did. I get to bring a light to their day and they fill me with love and gratitude that I get to do the work I do.
That same month , I started “guiding” at their assisted living manor. Now this was a bit more like typical guiding. The residents here are younger, more mobile, and had longer attention spans. And boy do they love connecting with nature!
The first two months we have been in their courtyard, but next month we will head out on their nature trail, I can’t wait!