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Published on August 13, 2015

Gardening for the health of itGardening for the health of it

Jan’s life has been a physical and emotional litany of grief and setbacks.  Nearly 60, she’s suffered from depression, an aneurism and cancer.  Carol, her friend, is a generation younger but equally challenged, suffering from severe diabetes and its ravaging complications to body and soul.

The years have inexorably chipped away at their capacity to be independent and functioning adults.

Yet, as summer arrived on Cape Cod, their spirits and health began to blossom alongside the picket-fenced garden’s flowers and vegetables that have become the fulcrum of their fragile lives.

This is no ordinary garden. On the grounds of JML Care Center in Falmouth, Charlotte’s Garden is a 31-foot-by-33-foot oasis for 60 adult day care clients ranging in ages from 38 to 90 – all suffering physical, mental and cognitive limitations.

The gift of Nancy and Edward Eskandarian in the name of Nancy’s mother, Charlotte, who loved gardening, it’s paved to accommodate wheelchairs, walkers and canes. There’s a sitting area near the garden shed with tables, chairs and umbrellas.

Some of the more profoundly handicapped adults will be wheeled to a spot between the verdant fruits and vegetables simply to experience a beautiful June day. Those with Alzheimer’s disease will be escorted to the lettuce beds or the spring strawberry patch to help gather them for the day’s lunch salad and dessert.

But for Jan and Carol, Charlotte’s Garden, is so much more. It’s a bridge that lets them travel from painful isolation to communal joy; a place and time to rekindle ever so modestly years of lost possibilities. It’s an empowering force in an otherwise constrained world where choices are made by others – from what to wear and eat to when and where to arrive or leave.

The heart and soul of Charlotte’s Garden, its planters and nurturers, are two nurses who have worked at JML for more than two decades – Bobbee Frazer, RN, director of the adult day care program, and Liz Whitcher, RN. They marvel at the transformation of Jan and Carol and – so many other clients – many of whom spend six days a week at JML, from the time they arrive in the morning for coffee hour through morning and afternoon activities as well as lunch.

Bobbee Frazier, Adult Day Health Director at JML, works in the garden

“We started Charlotte’s Garden last year,” Bobbee says. “Almost immediately, Jan fell in love with it.“ When she’s tending the garden, she emerges from what might be described as post-traumatic stress syndrome. She becomes a leader among the clients.

“She talks about the garden all the time,” says Liz. “She’s even put a big garden in at her home.”

Every morning when she arrives at JML, Jan will inspect the garden before entering the building. On this one day, she noticed a problem with the irrigation. She promptly filled a can full of water and began sprinkling the emerging vegetables.

“That’s empowerment,” said Bobbee. “We have clients from group houses who never make decisions or they live in supervised private homes.  There are so few choices in their lives. But at Charlotte’s Garden, they are in charge.”

Liz explains that even during the past winter, Jan, Carol and other clients continually met to plan the spring garden. They decided which vegetables to plant, how to organize the multiple raised beds, and what responsibilities each of them would undertake.

“They went to the garden center this spring to purchase seeds and garden tools. They traveled on a bus together to the nursery; they transacted the purchases. They even participated arranging the arrival of turkey compost from the Wattes Family Farm in Sandwich,” said Bobbee.

The garden also has helped Bobbee and Liz demonstrate the link between nutrition and better health.  Carol, for instance, will eat very poorly at home, but she now understands what foods are good for her by virtue of planting and nurturing them.

The clients were so successful with the garden last summer that JML could not consume all the produce for lunches and snacks. “We probably grew more than a thousand cucumbers,” recounted Whitcher.

That’s when Bobbee and Liz got the idea of organizing a farmer’s market right on the premises. They held three of them, with families of JML’s fulltime skilled nursing home residents purchasing most of the fruits and vegetables.

This is the second year that Charlotte’s Garden is in operation. It’s expanded in size and detail, thanks in large part to a community that extends well past the grounds of JML, which is owned by Cape Cod Healthcare. A new shed with a bell-shaped cedar shake roof was designed and constructed by students at Upper Cape Technical High School with materials donated or discounted by local businesses.

In addition to the continual partnership with Upper Cape Technical High School, whose students also designed and built the raised garden beds, JML has relied on the expertise of the Mullen Hall School Garden Committee, which initiated its own garden for students in 2012.

It all speaks to the sign posted as you cross the picket fence pronouncing this “an Inter-generational garden.”

Note: The names of Jan and Carol have been changed to protect their privacy.