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Plants should cut utility bills, too
Recreation therapist Patricia Fitzgerald has a new job description that includes battling ladybugs, spreading mulch, and digging in the dirt. She’s learning about ornamental grasses and rose bushes and perennial flowers; she’s dealing with irrigation systems and waterfalls and streams. And she’s doing it all on a Chicago rooftop.
That’s because her employer, Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, recently opened a therapeutic rooftop garden that not only provides patients with new opportunities for therapy but also contributes to improving the air quality of the city. Funded in part by a $400,000 grant from the Chicago Department of Environment, through Commonwealth Edison, the garden features the latest greenroof technology.
"The whole principle behind it is it works as a cooling system to cool off your roof and, hopefully, to reduce your utility bills at your facility but then also to cool off the environment," says Brenda Koverman, MBA, MS, OTR/L, director of inpatient therapy services at Schwab. "The idea behind this is that a bunch of rooftops in an urban area will have these gardens on them, which will lower the temperature of the whole city."
Schwab looks at the environmental edge as a bonus to the real advantage: the opportunity to provide innovative therapy in beautiful surroundings. The garden, which had its humble beginnings as a wheelchair basketball court, now boasts a series of pathways that meander past lush plantings and a waterfront garden with a waterfall, pond, and stream. Butterfly bushes attract hundreds of butterflies. Children play in a special area with cushy pavers that allow them to get out of their wheelchairs. Families walk together or sit and visit at night. Staff members eat lunch or take breaks in the fresh air.
But most importantly, patients get therapy without even realizing it, Fitzgerald explains. Physical therapists use the garden to help patients practice walking and topographical orientation. Psychologists use the area as a calming environment for group sessions. Occupational therapists help patients practice standing balance and fine motor skills while they do activities in the garden. Speech therapists work on cognitive and memory skills by asking patients to name certain flowers or follow a direction to find a certain plant.
Recreation therapists offer horticultural therapy, encouraging patients to help plant, water, weed, and trim. The water and plants provide opportunities for relaxation therapy and aromatherapy.
"You can take stroke patients and work on their fine motor coordination, cognition, and problem solving, all while they’re taking care of plants," she says. "They get to be primarily outside when the weather is nice and do things in a way that’s different from what you can do inside. It relaxes people. They think of it not so much as therapy but as hanging out with the staff. Even though they are meeting their goals, they don’t feel like they are in therapy."
In the spring and summer, Fitzgerald will spend half her hours working to maintain the garden. Because there is little shade on the rooftop, she expects to involve patients in continuous watering all day. "It’s just a lot of fun for the patients and for me. I love to garden, so it’s perfect."
A major benefit for Schwab’s patients is that the garden provides a safe environment to be outdoors. "We’re located in Chicago between North and South Lawndale, which are two of the poorest communities in Chicago," Koverman adds. "We’re in gang territory, and we do get a lot of victims of violence. We do get people who are affiliated with different gangs in the surrounding area. For them to be able to be on the rooftop, whether they have gang affiliations or not, it’s a safe place for them to be able to sit."
Schwab, a 125-bed hospital affiliated with the Sinai Health System, serves a population that is 45% Medicare and 45% Medicaid. "We’re a not-for-profit hospital. Our mission is to serve the community," she says. "So this is huge that we could get something like this here. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing for our patients to have."
Koverman says the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations is considering a standard that would require patients to have some type of outdoor exposure. "It is a great benefit to our patients to be outside," Koverman says. "One of our patients had been in the hospital for almost six weeks with an amputation and a couple of complications. He came to us, and he went upstairs to the garden; and he said how nice it was just to be outdoors. That’s a benefit we don’t even think about. Most of us have the ability to go outdoors whenever we want."
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