Therapeutic Outdoor Spaces in Senior Housing Communities

Image of aspens courtesy Henry Domke Fine Art

Here’s a letter that I received this week, along with my response. I’m posting our exchange partly to share some resources in this area of our field, and partly in hopes that you will have more ideas and information to add. Please leave comments! The more information that we can offer people on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network, the better, so please help us build our knowledge base.

Hi, I am an assistant social worker at a residential community for seniors in northern New Mexcio. We are looking to transform our courtyards and our outside acreage into a wonderful space for our elderly residents. One of the spaces needs to accommodate our physical therapies. I’m looking for designs and templates to guide our process

Thanks for your email. That’s wonderful that you’re looking to transform your courtyards and outside landscapes into healing gardens for elderly residents. Facilitating contact with nature is so important, and people benefit from it physically, mentally, and emotionally. Here are some excellent books:
  • Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes’ Healing Gardens: Therapeutic Benefits and Design Recommendations, especially the chapters 8 (Nursing Home Gardens, by Deborah L. McBride), 9 (Alzheimer’s Treatment Gardens, by John Zeisel and Martha M. Tyson, and 11 (Getting it Done, by Marni Barnes and Clare Cooper Marcus).
  • Martha Tyson’s The Healing Landscape: Therapeutic Outdoor Environments – this is the most “how-to” book that I know of, with nice drawings and helpful scenarios, mostly focusing on senior populations.
  • A new book that just came out, by Pauline S. Abbott, Nancy Carman, Jack Carman, and Bob Scarfo, Re-Creating Neighborhoods for Successful Aging, which has a lot of case studies and useful guidelines.
  • Joann Woy’s Accessible Gardening: Tips and Techniques for Seniors & the Disabled.
  • Diane Carsten’s Site Planning and Design for the Elderly: Issues, Guidelines, and Alternatives.
  • For more research-oriented study, I’d recommend Susan Rodiek and Benyamin Schwartz’ The Role of the Outdoors in Residential Environments for Aging.
I also urge you to seek out a horticultural therapist who could really link the physical therapy with using outdoor spaces and other aspects of nature. You could contact to see if they can put you in touch with a local HTR.

Best of luck, and keep in touch to let us know how it all turns out. We’re always looking to add good examples of therapeutic spaces to our list of gardens on the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s site (