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Bittersweet Garden Club sees success in new garden therapy program

Bittersweet Garden Club sees success in new garden therapy program

May 12th, 2019 by Samantha Pogue in Features

(Photo by Samantha Pogue) Linda Wohletz paints a sunflower Bittersweet Garen Club's second garden therapy session, "Art in Bloom," on April 8 in the private dining room of Heisinger Bluffs.

Sarah Malone saw an array of brightly colored flowers painted on different canvases when she walked into the private dining room at Heisinger Bluffs in early April. Asked to select which one she would like to paint, she quickly knew a beautiful blue flower was her choice.

"Right when she walked in, she said, 'When I see what I like, I know right away,'" Tina Spillers said.

"I know if I like it or I don't like it," Malone added as the two giggled.

Spillers and fellow Bittersweet Garden Club volunteers set up Malone with a canvas that had the same flower outline, a variety of paints and brushes, and all the things she needed to recreate that blue flower she liked so much.

Like many of her fellow residents at Heisinger Bluffs, Malone had never painted before, but they were willing to try this "Art in Bloom" activity orchestrated under Bittersweet Garden Club's new garden therapy program.

There have been many garden clubs that have hosted garden therapy programs at retirement centers in the area for several years. But Spillers had personal interest in starting a garden therapy program at Heisinger Bluffs.

"To be honest, my mother, Martine Pelletier, is living here at Heisinger and has for about a year," Spillers said. "I moved her here from Florida and she is very active. She plays bridge, she plays bingo, she does exercise and loves all the different activities. She was in a bigger place with lots of amenities and this place is just wonderful. I looked for a long time, and this is the best place for her here."

Spillers thought a garden therapy program might make another successful addition to the many activities Heisinger Bluffs offers. As chair of the garden therapy committee through Bittersweet Garden Club, Spillers said the mission of the program is for club members to provide several hands-on workshops to residents and independent and assisted living facilities in the area.

Their goal: that the craft and gardening projects they provide these adults will help develop skills and improve their social psychological and physical well-being.

Like Pelletier, Lorraine Oligschlaeger is also a newer Heisinger Bluffs resident and loves being involved in many activities to meet new people, including lots of exercise classes and Zumba Gold. "Art in Bloom" allowed her to try her hand at painting for the first time.

"I think it is a great activity to get acquainted with my fellow residents more," Oligschlaeger said. "They make it a lot of fun and you learn a lot."

Studies done on garden therapy show they promote self-awareness, relieve stress, anxiety and confusion through a sense of empowerment, improve motor skills, improve cognitive skills, help to cope with transitions and facilitate communication, Spillers said.

"It builds self-confidence and people come out of their shell. It is amazing," she added.

In addition, some older adults may also have chronic diseases and age-related functional impairments that affect their vision, hearing and balance, as well as they may suffer from chronic pain, anxiety or depression. Spillers said making art provides an enjoyable experience that takes the adult's focus away from those concerns and encourages them to use their creative juices. Bittersweet Garden Club member Karen Basel has witnessed how art has worked with older adults firsthand through volunteering at a local facility that primarily cared for Alzheimer's patients.

"We did landscapes. I would bring a picture off of a calendar in and say this is what we are going to do today. We are going to do the sky now. I would do that and demonstrate it, but it worked best if I went around the room and helped them," Basel said. "I enjoyed it and so did they. When they would finish one, they were so proud. It keeps me painting, and I loved hearing their stories."

Heisinger Bluffs residents have even more stories to tell after participating in Bittersweet Garden Club's first two garden therapy programs. With four programs scheduled for this year, the club started the new program with "A Pop of Color." Each participant started with a hyacinth bulb that would be potted in a jelly jar and could be adorned with decorations to personalize it to the resident's home.

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"It was a pop of color during a cold and gloomy winter," Spillers said of the early January session. "We had a limit of 28 people because of the amount of bulbs I had. I had a couple of extras just in case. It was completely full. They loved the first session we did, and we have had people come back for this second session."

"Art in Bloom" in early April allowed residents to paint flowers on canvas, and about 10 residents attended this highly creative session that allowed them to paint over a sketched outline of finished painting by Bittersweet Garden Club members.

Spillers said they plan to do two more sessions this year at Heisinger Bluffs, including decorating lanterns they can change out for each season and making notecards with dried flowers or potpourri. With the program's popularity, Spillers is encouraged to expand the program more next year.

"This year we are doing everything at Heisinger Bluffs, and we may expand next year and do things at other centers with seniors," she added. "Mom said the residents talk about it long after the program. Even from the last one, a couple of them gave me my jelly jars back and said if we do it again will you fill it up for me?"

Malone also enjoyed the "Pop of Color" session, which prompted her to attend "Art in Bloom." She enjoys that they are providing something different residents can do that keeps them busy and participate in an activity together with other residents, even if it is something Malone has never done before.

"One of my friends said, 'I want to see one of your paintings when you are done,' and I said 'I may not want you to see it,'" Malone said with a laugh. "But I have really enjoyed this. We all appreciate that (the club) is doing this."

For more information about the Bittersweet Garden Club, visit