Rooftop garden grows bounty of benefits for elderly

On the 12th floor terrace of the Duncan Mills Co-op, something green will be sprouting soon. And, according to co-op resident, Mary Trapani Hynes, the gardeners involved aren’t what one would expect.

“Everybody should be able to garden if they want to,” Hynes said. “I’ve been interested in the whole idea of gardening for the disabled because I think it’s a way of getting people involved in doing things they don’t normally get to do.”

The housing complex, at 2040 Don Mills Rd., is home to a new rooftop garden designed to be accessible for seniors with disabilities and starting in May, residents will fill the raised beds with vegetables and flowers.

Hynes, a retired teacher living in the building, conceived the project. In June 2007, she went to the federal government with her idea. After a long application process, she received $25,000 from the New Horizons for Seniors program to start the garden. The New Horizons program offers funding to projects that help the elderly stay active in their communities.

To Hynes, a rooftop garden seemed the perfect outlet for seniors because it reduces social isolation. And, making the garden accessible for people in wheelchairs or using canes, was an essential part of Hynes’ vision. “We’re not just growing vegetables,” Hynes said. “We’re growing a community.”

Journalist Judy Steed has researched the elderly extensively. In 2008, she published a series of articles about aging in the Toronto Star. She also lectures on the subject, suggesting that gardening has proven benefits for seniors.

“It’s so beneficial because you’re constantly moving in gentle motions. You’re getting really good exercise,” Steed said. “And you’re doing this physical activity in a beautiful context. So, it’s relaxing. It’s restoring.”

Steed said gardening isn’t only good for people with physical disabilities. At a residence in Copenhagen, Denmark, she witnessed seniors suffering from dementia working with plants. “They loved to go out in the garden,” she said. “It remained an activity even with advanced brain disease.”

The City of Toronto offers a community gardening program that includes only a few accessible rooftop gardens.

The South Riverdale Community Health Centre has operated one such garden since 2004. It too features raised beds and containers for flowers, herbs and vegetables, making the gardens more accessible for people with disabilities.

Co-ordinator Judy Wong said she sees the program making a difference for the seniors involved. “It’s therapy for them. I have some clients who are sick with complex medical problems. And doing something with their hands is very therapeutic,” Wong said.

Plus, participants have the opportunity to mingle when they come together and eat the fruits of their labours – literally. Wong said they make salads from what they’ve grown, all of which the gardeners have cultivated from seeds.

As for Hynes, she said she hopes accessible rooftop gardens will continue to grow throughout the city because she believes so strongly in their benefits to everyone involved.

“Producing your own food is healthier for you. It’s good for the environment. It’s peaceful. It’s the kind of thing that encourages cooperation,” Hynes said. “By having someplace beautiful to sit and relax, people will feel good. It’s emotionally uplifting.”

Filed by Victoria Wells