The Alzheimer’s garden


One speciality of St. Anthony Park resident Erik Jorgensen, whose landscaping business is called Wandering Designs, is creating Alzheimer’s gardens, which often include a structure such as a gazebo.

Unless you know someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you may never have heard of an Alzheimer’s garden. The concept is popular on both coasts but isn’t well-known in Minnesota.

That’s changing, however, through the efforts of St. Anthony Park resident Erik Jorgensen and his business, Wandering Designs, which specializes in therapeutic gardens.

An Alzheimer’s garden is usually constructed as part of a nursing home or retirement home in an area protected from the elements. There must be a solid fence at least eight feet high — so residents don’t try to leave or become distressed by what happens outside the garden — and a locked gate. Pathways should be easy to follow.

The garden should be calm and peaceful but have many sources of stimulation: brightly colored flowers with pleasant scents, plants and pathways with varied textures. Often Jorgensen includes water features or wind chimes, as well as feeders that attract birds and other wildlife.

At the farthest point of the garden is a major focal point — a table with a brightly colored umbrella, wishing well, gazebo, porch — to coax people along the paths, and there are frequent rest stops with benches that have backs and arm rests. Benches are angled rather than facing each other because most Alzheimer’s patients don’t like to look at other people straight on.

Jorgensen tries to evoke childhood memories by using old-fashioned plants such as hollyhocks, clotheslines, picket fences, wishing wells and arbors. He adds an open area for activities: having a barbecue, planting flowers or vegetables, meeting with therapy animals.

“The garden must be an active rather than a passive place,” he says.

Jorgensen grew up in Como Park and attended North Dakota State University and the University of Minnesota, where he got a bachelor’s degree in environmental design. He worked for Bachman’s in Eden Prairie, where he ran the garden center, and later joined McCarron Designs, where he did interior landscape design. He did “The Mighty Axe” at the Mall of America and the landscaping design for the Episcopal Home on University Avenue.

In 1999 the American Society of Landscape Architects began “One Hundred Years, One Hundred Gardens,” a pro bono project on the occasion of its 100th anniversary. McCarron Designs worked with other landscape artists to plan the Tabitha Garden, specifically for Alzheimer’s patients, at the Regina Medical Center in Hastings.

Jorgensen looked for others with more experience to help him but wasn’t able to find anyone. So he began educating himself about Alzheimer’s patients and the general principles guiding their care.

The project was a success and Jorgensen became the resident expert on Alzheimer’s gardens at McCarron Designs. After being laid off there, he received a commission to plan a therapy garden in the courtyard at the HealthEast Marion Center in St. Paul. That lead to other jobs, and he started his own company, Wandering Designs, in 2003, with Alzheimer’s gardens as his specialty. About 85 percent of his business is therapy gardens.

“This feels so much better to me than doing corporate landscaping,” Jorgensen says. “That is often just to feed someone’s ego by constructing a fabulous interior space. This is an ‘egoless’ endeavor — to design a place that feels more like home than an institution for people who are at the end of their lives. It feels right.”

Besides continuing to design therapy gardens, Jorgensen would like to get involved with community planning.

“Baby boomers are moving back into the cities,” he says, “and I’d like to do some consulting on how cities could be redesigned for older people. There will be more multi-use buildings and more neighborhood access to amenities like drugstores and hardware stores. I can see therapeutic landscaping being part of this design.”