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University of Minnesota Extension

Garden activities coax memories into bloom

University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteers help elders and people with memory disorders — and their caregivers

Woman in a garden looking at an iPad talking to older man and showing him the garden.
Paul Christopherson joins Hannah Schoneman, Extension Master Gardener volunteer, in a tour of her back yard.

Gloria’s family scratched their heads when their elderly mother reported on her adventurous day in Melinda Mattox’s garden. They knew the COVID-19 pandemic had residents quarantined, so was Gloria making it all up?

“They were relieved when they learned Gloria had taken the tour from the safety of her own room through an iPad,” says Christina Waters. Mattox is the Master Gardener who gave Gloria the tour.

Waters, a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteer, works as a registered dietetic technician at Episcopal Homes in St. Paul. She has dozens of stories about the relationships residents have built with other Master Gardeners through the Virtual Gardens with Elders program:

  • Paul Christopherson, a retired farmer from Crookston, said he was “not interested in flowers,” but Hannah Schoneman, a Master Gardener, grew up on a farm. They spent hours talking and Schoneman shared current crop reports with him.
  • An elder named Helen was starting to doze on her virtual visit with Master Gardener Elizabeth Gorman when Gorman shared a photo of her lilacs. The resident woke up and started clapping, a memory coming back to her.
  • One elder refused to participate until Waters reminded him of his interests in immigrants’ gardens and social justice when she saw those topics on his bookshelf.

“I get to hear memories of 60 residents in the program and share them with their families,” says Waters. 

Growing Connections

Master Gardener volunteers near garden
Ann Thureen helped start a collaboration between the Alzheimer’s Association and Extension volunteers and staff. Next to her is Greg Towne, Master Gardener, in this photo taken before COVID-19.

Ann Thureen, a Master Gardener volunteer, uses leadership skills from her former career at UNISYS to lead initiatives like Growing Connections. This collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association and local community centers focuses on the specific needs of those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Care partners are spouses, adult children, siblings or friends — and they like the classes just as much. Talking about plants and nature can spark memories for everybody.

Cultural outings are one element of the program Thureen is excited to start again, once it is safe to gather in person.

“Big breakthroughs have come about during tours at Noerenberg Memorial Gardens in Orono, and the Rose and Peace garden at Lake Harriett in Minneapolis,” she says. Tours at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and its Tashjian Bee and Pollinator Discovery Center have also proven the evocative power of a flower’s color or a bee’s buzz.

On the other hand, a hands-on virtual workshop on spring bulb planting reached participants with memory loss beyond Hennepin County because it was online. “Pots, paperwhite and hyacinth bulbs, pebbles, and soil had to be delivered ahead of time, but we made it work and reached participants from Willmar in Kandiyohi County,” says Patty Kelly, another Master Gardener volunteer.

Positivity, not perfection

Elderly woman and caretaker with a completed fairy garden
Making a fairy garden stimulates creative thinking. Even hesitant participants end up feeling proud of what they can do, and so do their caregivers. This photo was taken before COVID-19.

Thureen has a personal reason for her passion. “My sister had younger onset Alzheimer’s at 58,” she says. “I got involved at the Alzheimer’s Association and they said, ‘Aren’t you a gardener? We’d love to have a program for people with early Alzheimer’s.’”

Terry Straub, Extension educator in Hennepin County, says interest was strong. Forty Master Gardeners showed up for an information meeting, and soon after, Growing Connections was born.

The Alzheimer’s Association Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter screens participants and trains volunteers, while community centers provide the meeting space and help promote the program.

Woo Bandel is the program manager at the Alzheimer’s Association Minnesota-North Dakota Chapter. “Growing Connections provides a safe place,” she says. “Nobody has to be perfect. Activities, like making a fairy garden, are about creativity and fun. In the process, participants can focus on what they can do instead of what they can’t.”

Waters, Thureen, Kelly and the other volunteers feel inspired by the feedback from participants. One wrote, “Alzheimer’s can be a depressing disease. Experiences like this are the incentives I need to encourage me to live the best I can.”

Flowerpot with blooming spring flowers and small decorative items
Encourage adding memorabilia to garden creations, like childhood marbles or a favorite button. Choose items that won’t rust or degrade.

Choose activities that delight

Pay special attention to what the person enjoys. Engage the senses, but be aware when something (like loud noise) causes irritability, as well as when the texture of a fuzzy plant brings happiness.

  • Focus on enjoyment, not achievement. “It’s about being in the moment, not testing to see if they are retaining knowledge,” says Ann Thureen, Master Gardener.
  • Encourage involvement in daily life. Even setting up for group snack time can help an individual feel valued and successful. 
  • Relate activity to work life. A former office worker might enjoy organizing seed packets, while a farmer or gardener may take pleasure in pouring soil into a pot.

Adapted from the Alzheimer’s Association

“You are always cheerful, patient, knowledgeable and encouraging. Your enthusiasm is infectious.” 
    — a Growing Connections participant

Related pages

About the Master Gardener volunteer program

More than 2,300 active master gardeners share U of M horticultural expertise in almost every county of Minnesota.

Garden Centro: Master Gardeners in Minneapolis

Extension Master Gardeners are part of the promise for a bright future at Centro Tyrone Guzman Intergenerational Learning Community.

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