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Healthy Monday: Greenery good for patients, health facilities

POSTED: August 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

The garden area of The Oaks at Limestone, designed and installed by the Fockele Garden Co., is an example of the type of "healing gardens" that nursing homes are adding to their landscapes.

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Sometimes, nature is the best medicine.

More health care facilities are using the outdoor environment as a way to help both patients and visitors feel better.

Known as "healing gardens" or "therapeutic landscapes," these green spaces have proven to be so beneficial that hospitals and nursing homes have begun incorporating them into their construction plans.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s two upcoming additions to its main campus, the Women & Children’s Pavilion and the North Patient Tower, both include healing gardens in their design.

And at least one local nursing home, The Oaks at Limestone off Limestone Parkway, has been using a therapeutic garden for several years.

There’s a bubbling fountain in the interior courtyard, and colorful native flowers planted throughout the grounds. Strategically placed bird feeders almost guarantee a display of wildlife throughout the day.

"The families really, really love it," said administrator Dorothy Foster. "The water fountain is really soothing. When residents are able to go outside, they love just sitting and enjoying the sound of the water."

Foster said the nursing home’s employees also find it a relaxing place to take a break.

"There’s such a sense of beauty and nature," she said. "From early spring to late fall, there’s always something blooming. It brings life to the place, and lifts people’s spirits."

The garden was designed about five years ago by Gainesville-based Fockele Garden Co.

"We were approached by UHS Pruitt (the corporation that operates The Oaks at Limestone)," said Julie Evans, co-owner and vice president at Fockele. "We did some research on what is a soothing environment for people who live in a nursing home and for visitors and employees who may be in a stressful situation."

What makes it a healing garden?

"You want to have things that are interesting, things that engage the senses, such as fragrant plants," said Evans. "We put in walking paths, places to sit. There’s the sound of water, and an abundance of flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s something that residents are real responsive to."

The garden even helps people who are not able to get outdoors, she said.

"A lot of the residents have a view outside, so we designed the landscape so they would be able to see it," Evans said.

Naomi Sachs, executive director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Resource Center in New York, said studies have shown that when patients have a view of the outdoors, they need less pain medication and have shorter hospital stays.

"Natural light has also been shown to have a very positive effect on people," she said.

This knowledge has brought about a revolution in health care design, Sachs said.

"In the 1960s, when hospitals got air conditioning and began closing their windows, they kind of turned their backs on the outdoors," she said. "(But) a lot of research has been done by environmental psychologists, starting in the mid-1970s. It shows that people respond to a wealth of greenery, a really lush environment (rather than to just a few boxed plants)."

Research has even indicated that after spending time in the straight corridors of a hospital, people feel better when they’re in a garden that has curvilinear paths.

"In a hospital setting, where people are very much not in control of their own bodies and their own routines, and there is a huge lack of privacy, naturalistic settings can be an antidote to that," Sachs said. "It’s a distraction to whatever problem the patient or visitor or caregiver may have."

While the gardens are beautiful, they’re far more than just a pleasant amenity.

"Savvy hospitals are realizing that it helps their bottom line," Sachs said.

That’s because when patients recover quicker, they need less intensive care and they go home sooner, freeing up beds for new patients.

Health care facilities may also save money on recruiting and training new employees.

"Hospitals with healing gardens have a lower turnover rate and much higher staff satisfaction," Sachs said.

The environment also may play a role in why people choose one facility over another. If they had a positive experience, whether as a patient or as an employee, they’re likely to recommend that place to others.

"The fact that people are happier can become a marketing tool," Sachs said. "More and more health care centers are starting to catch onto that."



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