Plants and People: An Interactive Garden

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Between drizzle and downpour, a magical thing happened this week in the garden.  Plants and People did indeed connect and interact during the luncheon and tram tour for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

The program is new to the garden this year, initiated by trustee Lin Lougheed after he witnessed a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During a boxed lunch in the Visitors Center, everyone worried about the rain, and a slide show stood at the ready. But just at the moment when the 25 visitors and 11 volunteers were to board the tram, the rain stopped.

Volunteer extraordinaire Bob Petzinger prepared a special talk, and walked beside the tram much of the way, as it traveled slowly through the garden.

Bob and several other volunteers and staff began training last summer with professionals from the Southeast Florida Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, learning both about the disease and how to communicate with patients (“Be direct, maintain eye contact, and talk more slowly,” Bob explained.)

Then, Jay Jones, an early Alzheimer’s patient, and his wife, Laura, rode with Bob on his regular tour, suggesting ways to craft the program by eliminating references to dates and numbers and streamlining the information.

“We’re trying to give caregivers a pleasant day and achieve some interaction with patients,’’ Bob said.

This week’s program was dedicated to the late Sophie Miller, whose family attended. Irma Braman, Sophie’s daughter, and Debi Weschler, her granddaughter, were aboard the tram with Lin Lougheed and Aaron Fleischman, who has generously endowed the program. Congresswoman Ileana Ross Lehtinen and her sister Nancy brought their mother, Amanda Ross; Fran Plummer brought her husband Bill; Rachel Menton, activities director, brought seven patients and their caregivers from the Seymour Gelber Adult Day Care Center, and many others were aboard.

Yayoi Kusama’s polka-dotted pumpkins were a hit, as were the cycads, which were seeding. An alligator caused all sorts of commotion, oohs and aahs, as it neared the lake's shoreline. As the tram proceeded, patients clearly became engaged in the garden’s sights.  A woman named Marianne, who was seated behind me, tucked an orange piece of cycad cone in her purse, delighted with the brilliant color and feel. When stopped at the steel sculpture by Mark di Suvero called She, Bob asked if anyone could guess why the enormous piece with moveable parts was given that name. Looking at staffers and volunteers swaying gently on the swing, someone called out “Because they’re swingers!”

Through the lowlands, past the gingerbread palms from Egypt and the Loch Ness monster, the 70-seat tram traveled. At the carnuba wax palm, Bob explained how the wax taken from the palm’s leaves was used, and how Brazil controlled the distribution. “So now we know, and next week we’ll forget it,’’ Marianne said with a big smile, acknowledging the irony of her disease.

Miniature Phalaenopsis orchids were given to each person at the tour’s end.

Perhaps the person to best sum up the experience was Rachel Menton, who brought so many from the adult day care center.

“The garden is so peaceful for them,’’ she said, explaining why bringing her patients and their care givers was important. “They won’t remember being here all the time, but they will remember the tranquility.”

Seven tours had been planned for this program, but an eighth already has been added by special request. For more information, click on “Plants and People” in the garden’s Events menu: