Originally appearing in Business London Magazine, February, 2015

Photo of Jodi Hall, Magdalen Carter, and Catherine Webber beside a garden

A research partnership between Fanshawe College and the Alzheimer Outreach Services (AOS) of McCormick Home - the largest day program of its kind in Ontario - is sowing the seeds to improve the quality of life for those living with Alzheimer's disease and related dementias (ADRD).

The collaborative study, funded by Fanshawe College, Westminster College Foundation, McCormick Home Foundation and AOS's governing organization Women's Christian Association, set out to investigate whether horticultural therapy and other garden-related activities could improve the well-being of AOS clients.

"The message this research sends is that people with Alzheimer's disease can have a quality life. The diagnosis isn't the end of the world," says Magdalena Carter, recently retired Director of Outreach Services at AOS and co-investigator on the project. "It's our job to help people to experience life to the fullest with the senses and abilities they have."

Dr. Jodi Hall, a nursing professor and Fanshawe's lead on the project, says the College "jumped at the chance" to partner with such a valuable community service. "We're always looking for opportunities to make a difference in our community," she says. "Finding ways to enhance well-being and lessen the devastating effects that ADRD can have on clients and their families is incredibly important."

Early in the planning process, Dr. Hall identified a major hurdle; she knew what instrument the team needed to collect the data, but didn't know how to use it. That's when she turned to ResearchGate - what she refers to as "the Facebook for researchers" - to put out a call for help. That's where she connected with Gary Mitchell.

Mitchell, a former care assistant turned nurse and dementia care advisor currently working for an organization that operates approximately 80 care homes throughout Northern Ireland, is an accredited dementia care mapper who has been caring for people with the disease for over 13 years. He immediately responded to Hall's request, agreeing to mentor the team over bi-weekly Skype sessions on the data collection process and help interpret and present the data.

Drawn to the study because of his strong interest in non-pharmacological approaches to dementia care, Mitchell is confident of the study's potential to "make a huge contribution to the international literature."

With Mitchell on board, the study began by assigning 14 AOS clients who had an interest in gardening their own plot, giving them the opportunity to pick what they wanted to grow. Over a 10-week period, the participants were observed while gardening and during traditional staff-directed activities.

Catherine Webber, a recent graduate of Fanshawe's Recreation and Leisure Services Program who had completed a work placement at McCormick Home but had no prior research experience, collected the data. Dr. Hall says Webber quickly became "a shining star". Webber found working on the project to be an enriching experience. "It's incredibly rewarding to be part of a project that will help improve people-centered care for those living with ADRD," she says.

While it took Webber months to input the binders of data she collected, and it will take Mitchell some time to interpret and present the data, Carter says the preliminary feedback she's received is promising. "(Caregivers) have told us that their family members came home excited and talking about the gardening project," she says. "They wanted to come back the next day so they could do their gardening."

Muriel Corbiere says her 90-year-old father, Stanley, would routinely talk about his garden at the dinner table. "He absolutely loved his garden," she says. "He would talk about the bus coming to take him to the garden. We didn't have to prompt him. He would repeat the stories, but he would talk happily about his day."

Carter says another observable benefit was how participants were able to share their harvest with friends and loved ones. "People living with ADRD have very few opportunities to give to others. They are typically on the receiving end," she says. "Being able to give the jar of jelly they made to a loved one was such a gift for them."

Donna Bandrowski says her 84-year-old mother was elated anytime she could bring something home to share with the family. "She would set whatever it was on the table to be sure we could see it before anything was done to it," says Bandrowski. She says the program had an impact on her mother's life. "Just being outside and talking to other people about gardening, my mother really enjoyed it," she says. "I'm hoping that the outreach services can do more of this type of work."

Carter is already thinking of ways to improve the program for next summer, saying she's hoping to use portable gardens that can be wheeled inside during the winter so clients can engage in the program year round.

Mitchell is also looking to the future: "I look forward to collaborating with the team in future research and making a contribution, not just to the literature but to people living with dementia."