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87-year-old Bernie Walker provided both the inspiration and the know-how to start a vegetable garden at Brookdale North Boulder, where residents and the kitchen chefs enjoy the fruits of his labor. Photo by Robin Truesdale.

Keep On Keeping On

This senior learned a whole new way of doing things so he could keep gardening at his new home.

By Lisa Truesdale

As resident programs director at Brook-dale North Boulder, Susan Sullivan says the goal of her job is to make sure every resident is involved in—and passionate about—something. “Even if a program pleases just one person, it’s totally worth it,” she says.

At The Academy in Boulder, staff members tend a gorgeous on-site flower garden and water feature, but several residents also have private flower gardens in their front yards. Photo by Amy Gosch.
At The Academy in Boulder, staff members tend a gorgeous on-site flower garden and water feature, but several residents also have private flower gardens in their front yards. Photo by Amy Gosch.

When she arrived at the senior-living facility for her new job in fall 2014, she was happy to learn a small gardening program existed. She’s an avid gardener herself, so if there hadn’t already been a program in place, she would have started one. “It’s healthy to play in the dirt,” she says.

Only a handful of Brookdale’s 80 or so residents participated in the program, though. One was Bernie Walker, 87, who moved to Boulder three years ago to be closer to family. Bernie had gardened all his life and was anxious to get back to it, so he began tending one of the building’s three large flower boxes on the east side. By the time Sullivan arrived, Bernie’s flowers were thriving and his fellow Brookdale residents knew exactly what he was passionate about.

“I was amazed at the beautiful flowers he had, and the herbs he mixed in with them,” Sullivan says. “Bernie had so much mint growing that it was completely taking over, so he cut a bunch of it for me and we had a big mojito party one Wednesday afternoon, our regular happy hour day.”

Soon after the successful mojito party, someone suggested that Bernie expand into vegetable gardening. He was excited, but he knew his existing garden plot was much too shady for veggies. So, with the blessing of executive director Brianna Westlake, he and Sullivan toured the property to scout for the ideal location. It didn’t take them long to find just what they were looking for—a sunny, south-facing area just outside the door to the facility’s kitchen.

At The Meridian in south Boulder, interested residents receive their own small planter box to tend. Photo by Carol Brock.
At The Meridian in south Boulder, interested residents receive their own small planter box to tend. Photo by Carol Brock.

Then they worked together to design a rectangular area bordered by 3-foot-tall wooden planter boxes, and one of the building’s maintenance workers, Caleb, turned their vision into reality. Bernie says, “Caleb created a masterpiece,” complete with an automatic drip-watering system (although Bernie admits he sometimes uses a hose “for better control”).

While the planter boxes were being built, Bernie researched Boulder’s climate and which types of vegetables would grow well here. “He lived most of his life in the south,” his daughter Robin explains, “so when he moved to Boulder, it was a very hard adjustment for him, gardening-wise. Our shorter growing season confounded him and he had to really research everything—new types of plants, the arid climate, the different soil composition.”

But Bernie wasn’t deterred. He spent hours searching on the Internet and reading gardening books so he could design and measure the layout, and determine optimal seed depth, spacing and planting dates.

“I’m the kind who just tosses out seeds and hopes they come up,” Robin laughs, adding that Bernie “has always taken a very meticulous approach to his gardening.”

Fresh & Flavorful

In spring 2015, once the new planters were ready to go, Sullivan packed Bernie and a few other interested residents into a van and they headed to The Flower Bin in Longmont, with Bernie’s plans and notes in hand. They loaded up on Bernie’s recommended veggies, which Sullivan and Caleb planted, and herbs, which Bernie planted. The peas, onions and kale came up first, followed by tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and herbs, then several varieties of squash. Bernie happily shared the bounty with everyone in the building, since each apartment has kitchen facilities.

At The Academy in Boulder, staff members tend a gorgeous on-site flower garden and water feature. Photo by Amy Gosch.
At The Academy in Boulder, staff members tend a gorgeous on-site flower garden and water feature. Photo by Amy Gosch.

The chefs in the main kitchen also took notice and began making fresh squash soup and incorporating fresh herbs into many of their other daily creations. “We love having fresh herbs right outside the door,” says lead chef James Healy. “It allows us to be creative, and we can’t wait to see what the garden produces this summer.”

Although Bernie still tends his flower garden—“it’s so peaceful to just sit out there and enjoy it, and watch the squirrels and birds,” he says—he’s happy the dream of growing a vegetable garden became a reality so quickly. “It’s so much more than a garden to me,” he says. “It’s good exercise, and it’s a good diversion. I love it.”

“I’m really proud of him,” Robin adds. “He’s a terrific inspiration for his co-residents. They all love to ask him about his flowers and vegetables, and a lot of them will pass along houseplants or flowering gifts that they’ve received, long after the plants are bright and beautiful, and he always nurses them back to health.

“It wasn’t easy, but he really stuck with it. He found a whole new way to keep doing what he loves.”


Looking Forward

Michelle Dayhoff of The Peaks at Old Laramie Trail in Lafayette knows the benefits of gardening for the elderly. She cites studies by Orla Concannon, founder of Eldergrow, which show seniors spend much of their spare time dwelling on the past. “Whether it’s with fondness or regret,” one senior told Concannon, “but gardening is one thing that helps us look forward.”
Gardening lets seniors engage with the community as well, Dayhoff notes, whether it’s by growing herbs the chef can use or growing a plant to give as a gift. That’s why The Peaks plans to have gardens at its new senior-living facility, scheduled to open this summer. Visit ­www.thepeaksatoldlaramietrail.com


All-Ages-Appropriate Activity

At The Meridian in south Boulder, interested residents receive their own small planter box to tend, and if there aren’t enough planters to go around, they’ll happily build more so everyone can participate. Meridian gardens are a mix of flowers, veggies and herbs. Photo by Carol Brock.
At The Meridian in south Boulder, interested residents receive their own small planter box to tend, and if there aren’t enough planters to go around, they’ll happily build more so everyone can participate. Meridian gardens are a mix of flowers, veggies and herbs. Photo by Carol Brock.

According to the National Council on Aging, the National Institutes of Health and other such agencies, gardening offers a number of health benefits for seniors, including:
✿ An enhanced immune system, thanks to the essential vitamin D from the sun and the “friendly” bacteria in the soil.
✿    A reduced risk of memory-loss conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, because the activity requires the use of so many different brain functions, like learning, problem-solving and sensory awareness.
✿    Cardiovascular benefits, better flexibility and improved balance, due to all the reaching, bending down, standing up and walking required.
✿    Improved sleep quality, because exerting yourself makes you more tired at the end of the day and better able to fall asleep and stay asleep.
✿    Stress relief, because doing what you love, reconnecting with nature and creating something beautiful can all help nurture your body, mind and soul.
—L.T.