Years ago, when he was a young man, Roger Hanson lived on a farm in the northern Aroostook County town of New Sweden.
“I used to grow a vegetable garden,” he said, watching workers unload some raised garden beds recently at Chamberlain Place Senior Housing in Brewer, where he lives now. “I used to grow potatoes, too. I raised some cows.”
Eyeing the row of waist-high wooden beds, Hanson said he was looking forward to getting his hands dirty again, planting beet greens and other leafy vegetables this coming garden season.
“I’d really like to grow some corn,” he said, “but I don’t suppose it would do too well in those beds.”
Hanson, 82, is taking part in a research project aimed at demonstrating the feasibility and healthy benefits of enabling seniors to raise and eat their own fresh vegetables. He is one of about a dozen residents at two Brewer Housing Authority sites to sign up for the project, which has drawn on the expertise and philanthropy of a number of partners in the region.
Seniors typically consume fewer servings of fresh vegetables per week than recommended, in part because fresh produce is expensive and doesn’t keep well, according to Kelley Strout, assistant professor of nursing at the University of Maine and the principal investigator on the study.
“If you give older adults in subsidized housing the opportunity, will they grow a garden and eat more vegetables?” she asked. “Will they eat a healthier diet and benefit from the physical and social activity?”
In collaboration with the UMaine school of nursing, the food science and nutrition program and the cooperative extension service, Strout has designed a research project aimed at answering her questions. Funding for materials comes from the university’s internal research fund and Bangor Greendrinks, which supports sustainable, health-focused projects in the area.
Last week, a tractor-trailer from Central Maine Moving and Storage in Bangor delivered 13 heavy hemlock garden beds on sturdy legs to Chamberlain Place and The Heritage, both owned and managed by the Brewer Housing Authority. A team of company movers and housing authority staffers wrestled the beds out of the truck and arranged them in rows on the grassy lawns of the residences. The tray-like beds, constructed at no charge by students in the woodworking program at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, stood about 4 feet high, making them easy for seniors to tend without bending or stooping.
Resident Flo Hawkes, 70, watched the activity from her chair in the sun. Hawkes, formerly of Harmony, said she’s excited about her garden, even though the project is limited to growing leafy greens and tomatoes the first year. That’s so researcher Strout and her partners can more specifically measure the impact of the project.
“Next year, they say we can grow anything we want,” Hawkes said with a grin. “Oh, I love to garden.”
Inside, Hannah Stefl, a UMaine nutrition student from Syracuse, New York, conducted a pre-participation survey with 80-year-old resident Joan Greenlaw, formerly of Baileyville.
Stefl asked about Greenlaw’s diet and medications, her mobility, her stress level, her overall happiness and any signs of dementia.
“Well, I don’t remember things like I did when I was 25, but I’m all right,” Greenlaw responded.
Greenlaw said that at her former apartment complex, she was allowed to put out flower pots and other garden containers. Until now, she said, Brewer Housing Authority hasn’t provided an opportunity for green-thumb residents like her.
“They’re a good height,” she said, peering out the window at the beds. “Some of us can’t bend over so well.”
Soil and seeds were delivered Tuesday, and seniors got to work planting their beds. They also were issued garden journals and disposable cameras to encourage them to document their progress over the growing season. Each week, Strout and others from the project will visit to monitor the beds, chat with the gardeners and troubleshoot any problems. A weekly recipe will help seniors incorporate the fresh produce into their diets, and they will be encouraged to share any surplus with their neighbors.
Come fall, Strout and her team of nursing and nutrition students will assess residents’ experience and re-administer the health survey, looking for signs that participating in the garden project has improved their intake of fresh produce while providing health benefits such as physical activity, social engagement and intellectual stimulation. The team also will identify any barriers to success and ways in which the project could be improved.
Strout hopes to take the data from this pilot program and use it to help design and fund a larger-scale project at senior housing facilities across the state. In the meanwhile, she’s happy to be working with the friendly residents at the Brewer Housing Authority, where her nursing students have conducted basic health clinics for the past three years.
“This is really a very capable population,” she said. “For many seniors, gardening has been an important part of their lives in the past, but they often lose that opportunity when they move into subsidized housing.”
Her project, she said, seeks to restore gardening as a healthy activity for aging Mainers.