SANTA ANA : Gardeners Are Raising Their Spirits

The flowers, plants and vegetables that fill the redwood planters at the Western Medical Center nursing facility are more than just colorful scenery--they are a source of therapy and joy for the wheelchair-bound residents who live there.

The elderly residents, many of whom are stroke victims, spend about half an hour each day tending to the planters, which are now blooming with life. The group began planting seeds five weeks ago as part of a program called "Garden Therapy," designed to help improve patients' hand-eye coordination.

"I think it's one of the best things we can do with the residents," said Doug Lehnhoff, the facility's chief executive officer. "It gets them outside, they do some planting and watering and have something meaningful to do."

On Thursday, the residents celebrated their achievements with a garden party organized by the center's staff.

"It's the first time I ever gardened left-handed," said Luis Windman, 75, one of about 20 residents who ate cookies and sipped cold lemonade during the afternoon event.

"I used to garden back in Indiana, raised a few tomatoes and grew a lot of roses, my favorite flowers," said Windman, who suffered a stroke three years ago and lost the use of his right arm.

Tom Miller, 87, also gardened extensively before suffering a stroke in 1985. He is now almost unable to speak and can't use his right arm, but the daily gardening sessions have lifted his spirits.

"I've noticed that when he's outside like this, he tries to talk more, even though it's very difficult," said his 91-year-old wife, Charlotte. "He enjoys being with the others and doing something together. It's much better than sitting in those rooms not seeing anybody and not talking to each other."

There was a time when Miller, a retired Hughes Aircraft employee, would spend endless hours in the large back yard of his Garden Grove home tending to his roses and marigolds, his wife said.

"He was very good at gardening," she said. "He used to come home from work and go straight to the back yard just to check on everything. We sold the house on account of how good the back yard looked."

Claudia Streaty, one of the center's administrators, said the benefits of gardening therapy have been apparent among many of the residents, even those who are physically limited to simply running their fingers through the dirt.

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