Denver Botanic Gardens offers relief to dementia patients, caretakers

The SPARK program is now offered in winter

Posted 2/6/19

Even before she became a certified horticulture therapist, Lee McCoy has always felt that plants have a special way of helping people live in the moment. The feel of the soil — or the smell of a …

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Denver Botanic Gardens offers relief to dementia patients, caretakers

The SPARK program is now offered in winter

Posted

Even before she became a certified horticulture therapist, Lee McCoy has always felt that plants have a special way of helping people live in the moment. The feel of the soil — or the smell of a flower — can help ground people.

“I’ve just always noticed within myself the ability of plants to get you out of your head,” she said. “I was just drawn to that and wanted to explore it more.”

McCoy has been running the SPARK class for four years, although the gardens has run the program for the last six. SPARK is a special horticulture therapy class for patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s and their caretakers. It is run in partnership with the Colorado branch of the Alzheimer’s Association, a national nonprofit providing care and research for dementia and Alzheimer’s. McCoy worked with tropical plants at the Denver Botanic Gardens before taking over the class.

The class uses gardening activities to help people with these diseases to engage in their surroundings, as well as with other participants in the class. Many of those who take the class were former gardeners, McCoy said. And certain plant smells, such as from a common garden flower, “often spark a memory for them.”

That spark is also where the program got its name.

While the class can offer a road back to memories for patients, it also offers relief to caretakers. Caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s can be an emotionally draining job, McCoy said. Connecting with others can help vent some of that frustration.

“It’s nice to see them get to talk to other people who are in the same boat,” she said. “It’s just sort of become a nice supportive community.”

In summer and fall, SPARK is held on the first Tuesday of the month. The class alternates between the Denver location of the Botanic Gardens at 1007 York St. and its Chatfield Farms location at 8500 W. Deer Creek Canyon Road in Littleton.

McCoy usually starts the classes with a tour. What section of the garden the class tours depends on the day’s activity. In October, the class painted pumpkins and toured the Chatfield pumpkin patch. The class toured the tropical gardens before making tea bags with tropical herbs and flowers.

Classes have also done planting and garden bed design work at the Botanic Gardens. In summer, the class will plant in June, and then return to the beds in August to see their efforts in bloom, McCoy said. Since many of the people taking the class don’t have garden spaces of their own, the program will also have container planting activities.

Once class participants begin to work on activities, McCoy said it feels as if a weight has been lifted for people. She enjoys seeing the groups interact. “To me that’s one of the most beautiful things about our program.”

This year, the Botanic Gardens has extended its program into the winter months for the first time.

At the Denver location, the classes are held in the Sensory Garden. It’s a peaceful place, McCoy said. Fountains help create soothing sounds and plants often draw in songbirds.

“It just takes you out of your head to see all of those things,” she said. “Plants have a way of clearing out the cobwebs for some people sometimes.”

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