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Nursing homes can invoke a mental picture of glassy-eyed residents walking up and down hallways or sitting, day after day, in the same chair or bed staring out windows or at blaring televisions.

Arroyo Grande Care Center, 1212 Farroll Ave., is changing all that with service-based therapy programs.

Patients at this skilled nursing home rebuild their lives by working on a fully-functioning farm to benefit local low-income seniors or by gathering, sorting and distributing school supplies and clothing for teenage students in need.

“One of the challenges we have in nursing homes and that we’re just starting to realize is that, no matter how good we are, no matter how passionate, how clinically excellent we are, it puts them in the position to just receive care, to thank us for that care. I think that’s the core of rampant depression in nursing homes. The core of the problem is that people still need to be needed,” said Matthew Lysobey, administrator of Arroyo Grande Care Center.

In November, maintenance staff broke ground on “The Farm,” a completely wheelchair-accessible, 1-acre produce and poultry garden.

In any given week, two-thirds of the home’s 90 patients can be found tending to raised plant beds, 26 dwarf fruit trees, a chicken coop and a 48-foot greenhouse. It was patients who planted the seeds, maintained the seedlings in the greenhouse and transplanted them to the garden. They toil daily on regular garden chores including watering, weeding, pruning and harvesting.

“The fact that we’re providing wonderful care doesn’t give them a reason to get out of bed in the morning, but  knowing that staff is not going to tend to the plants or the animals, that this food they produce goes to low-income seniors, that they’re needed, that’s what gives them a reason to get up,” Lysobey said.

Each week, gardeners harvest a crop that could include carrots, tomatoes, cabbage, potatoes and more, then deliver them to a free farmers market at nearby Grandmother’s Mobile Home Park. Low-income seniors there have their pick of the crop.

“For a lot of our patients, it’s the first time in years that someone has looked them in the eye and thanked them,” Lysobey said.

Rehabilitation Coordinator   Regina Beck said the garden provides a dynamic venue for physical therapy more closely related to real-life situations. Pathways, stairs, gravel, grass and other uneven surfaces add an element to physical therapy that smooth hallways cannot.

“Sometimes the patients get bored with our regular exercise programs and walking the halls. In the farm, we’re able to do the same exercises in a functional manner,” Beck said.

They practice dynamic standing while watering the garden beds, dynamic gate patterns while walking the uneven footing and a variety of other therapy motions while pulling weeds or harvesting plants.

“In this area especially, we have a lot of former farmers or people who spent most of their lives outside. Being inside all of the time is really tough for them, so this program provides activity that they can relate to, that they enjoy,” Beck said.

While Arroyo Grande Care Center focuses on their school-related and produce projects, Lysobey said it’s not the end product that matters but the sense of fulfillment patients get from the feeling of being needed.

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“It’s not about the soap you make or the plants you grow or the homeless or low-income people you serve. We have countless nonprofits across this country doing good work. There’s a nursing home in every community full of people who want to help, who want to be needed, who want to have meaning and purpose in their lives. They’re waiting to be asked,” Lysobey said.

The work doesn’t go quickly, but speed isn’t the point of these types of programs.

“It might take one patient in a wheelchair with certain limitations half an hour to pick a pound of beans, but they feel good when they can go to farmers market and tell people that they grew these beans, they picked these beans,” Lysobey said.

The garden has made all the difference in the world to patients like Velma Stricker. The nonagenarian spends as many of her waking hours as possible in the garden and maintains an ongoing request that her bed be moved to the greenhouse so she never has to leave the garden.

“Velma was an avid gardener. She told me, ‘If I don’t have a garden to work in, I might as well lay here in bed.’ She promised that if we built it, she’d be out there every day. She’s been true to her word. She’s a dynamo out there. It’s nice to see her back and doing the things she loves,” Lysobey said.

Many of the residents have found their way to the garden of their own accord, but for some deeply despairing about their role as seniors, it took a little bit of convincing. One patient hadn’t left her room for years despite the urging of her family and staff. When she learned that she could help others by working on the farm, she stepped to. Those suffering severe dementia may not be aware of the garden, but when staff members put a garden hose in their hands, they know exactly what to do.

“Hours later, they don’t remember the work that they did. But that feeling in their chest that they’re doing something important stays. It’s not the memory of the task but that emotional connection to helping their community that they feel and express hours later,” Lysobey said. “It doesn’t have to be a farm. It can be anything as long as people are serving and being needed.”

Jennifer Best is a freelance writer. She can be reached at jbest@bestfamilyadventures.com.

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