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Therapeutic Gardens Offer Healing for the Sick and Stressed

Walks for well-being often include journaling and quiet reflection

For almost 10 years, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Boca Raton, Fla., has offered strolls for well-being for caregivers and people living with loss and illness. Vietnam vets suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, grieving widows, exhausted caregivers, and people living with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis have strolled the gardens, written their thoughts and feelings in accompanying journals and experienced a sense of calm and joy.

Morikami is one of a number of gardens throughout the country that have created walks or special spaces for those who are grieving, sick or stressed.

Ruth McCaffrey, a retired professor from Florida Atlantic University, helped establish the Morikami program.

“It’s really amazing some of the stories,” McCaffrey says. “We know from a lot of research that being in nature is really helpful.”

It brings the love and appreciation of nature and it’s good for people recovering from illness.

— Karen Gerstenberger

Morikami’s gardens are named Roji-en, which means Garden of the Drops of Dew. Its six distinct gardens are inspired by famous gardens in Japan. There is a lake, an island, waterfalls, a bamboo forest and bridges, including a zig-zag bridge.

Just 16 acres, the Morikami gardens are surrounded by an additional 200-acre park with nature trails, pine forests and picnic areas.

For a $100 fee, the Morikami’s stroll for well-being program leads participants on 12 themed walks through the gardens. The program prompts them toward reflection with journal writing exercises on topics such as awareness, possibility, forgiveness and joy. The fee includes a membership to the museum. Nonprofit counseling and support groups can attend free of charge through a grant from Astellas Pharma US.

“Many people do the 12 walks more than once,” McCaffrey says. “They start over. They do their favorites.”

‘Natural’ Healing

Carol Steelman began taking walks at Morikami in January.

”It brought my awareness of the beauty of the world back,”says Steelman, a widow whose husband of 40 years died in 2014. I come here and my spirit is uplifted.” Steelman also photographs her walks.

Germaine Leonard and Jarod Jacobs stroll the gardens together. Jacobs has multiple sclerosis and Leonard is his wife and caregiver.

The garden’s customized journal “is integral,” Leonard says. “When you take (it) and go through the stroll it helps you reflect on where you are.”

A Growing Trend

The Bloedel Reserve, on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Wash., began a stroll for well-being program modeled after the Morikami program last autumn.

“It’s something everyone can benefit from,” says Erin Jennings, who handles outreach and communications at the Bloedel. “It’s always good to reflect on your life.”

Grief and caregiving were the most popular reasons participants sought out the strolls.

“They needed a place to recharge for themselves,” Jennings says. Though the guided stroll is free, there is a waiting list.

The Reserve’s 150 acres are a blend of natural woodlands and landscaped gardens. There is a bird refuge, a meadow, a reflection pool and a dense forest of Douglas fir, western red cedar and hemlock trees. Inspired by their surroundings, many of the participants turn their journals into works of art.

“People have gotten really creative with it,” Jennings says, noting that they draw, take pictures and write poetry about what they’re experiencing. “It’s opening up a lot of outlets.”

Coping After Tragedy

Doing the garden strolls allowed Karen Gerstenberger, an art major in college, to unblock her love for drawing.

“I’m in my mid-50s,” Gerstenberger says. “I had not been able to enjoy drawing without severe self-criticism for years.”

Gerstenberger first sought out the program as a way of coping with grief; her 12-year-old daughter Katie died of cancer in 2007.

“It gave me a lot of peace…and was hugely therapeutic for me,” Gerstenberger says of her daily walks.

Gerstenberger wrote about her experience on her blog and is now a facilitator for the program.

“I was thrilled to be asked to facilitate. It feels like the kind of work my heart was destined for,” Gerstenberger says. “It brings the love and appreciation of nature and it’s good for people recovering from illness. It’s not too much for anyone to walk.”

‘Larger Than Ourselves’

Gardens and labyrinths are often found near hospitals and nursing homes so residents, patients and loved ones visiting them can enjoy a few minutes with nature.

“Nature is larger than ourselves,” McCaffrey says.

And at times of illness, it can be a real comfort.

“Even it’s just 10 or 15 minutes feeling the sun on your face,” McCaffrey says. “When someone is dying and there is not a lot you can do, just sitting with the sun on your face feels good.”

And you don’t need a formal program to write and reflect and commune with nature for a few minutes each day or week to recharge and refresh your body and spirit.

“Take walks in a garden and take a journal and just start out writing your life story in a very short way and deciding on things you would like to change, things you would like to reflect on,” McCaffrey says. “You don’t need a lot — a pen, a pencil and a notebook.”

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