Profile Picture
The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

174: Orla Concannon

Orla Concannon shares her lifelong passion for serving elders, nature and therapeutic horticulture. She discusses the social and sensory stimulation provided by gardening and the techniques that spark positive memories for aging adults.
Learn about Eldergrow.

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. And I have a really cool topic for today’s episode. You’re going to want to lean into this. We want to welcome our guest today, Orla Concannon. She’s a therapeutic horticulturist and she loves gardening and is very passionate about it, and specifically how it pertains to loneliness in interventions in senior living. Welcome to the show. 


Orla: Good morning. Thank you so much. Good morning, Josh and good morning Lucas and everyone out there. It’s a pleasure to be here. 


Lucas: Well we’re glad that you’re on and specifically about this topic. We’re coming out of a very difficult last 12, 14, 16 months for many people, and there’s these topics of socialization, isolation and stimulation around our older adults and it is very important right now. Occupancy is struggling a little bit right now and senior living providers are trying to find ways to become a place that is more predominant, and have ways to get back to their main value proposition, which has always been community. Right. So tell us about your background, obviously you’re a super into gardening and how does this, how did you kind of take that passion and direct it to the older adult community?


Orla: Sure, well I’m super into elders and I’ve always been fond of older adults. In light of my formative years, my strong relationship with my Nana and that’s the name we give grandmothers in Ireland. And actually on that note, I used to work for the Alzheimer’s society of Ireland when I lived in Dublin. So I just had a lifelong passion around serving elders and it’s manifested into a career and of course founding ElderGrow. So the nature part is as a result of actually working in senior living communities. And so when I did that about 10 years ago, I worked out here in the Northwest at memory care and assisted living communities. And I saw how residents really responded when they had access to the outdoors and access to nature. I saw how it lit up their senses, I saw how it shifted their moods. And so, fast forward to when I went off to grad school, I got a healthcare focused MBA and I had to come up with a business plan and in doing so, it was suggested to us that we solve a problem. And the problem I wanted to solve was how residents didn’t have easy access to the outdoors, whether it was because of mobility or weather or safety challenges. If they needed one-on-one support from staff because they were at risk of a fall. So that was the seed for ElderGrow and pardon the many puns, was all because I saw the need to bring nature indoors and make it accessible to all residents in senior living communities. And so that’s how it came to life. We just celebrated our six years on Earth day. So that’s a big day for us. We launched on earth day because of how important we see nature and for gardening, to be honest I would say I’m a decent gardener, but I’m not the world’s best gardener, more so a real nature enthusiast. And I saw how therapeutic gardening during my grad school research was so rich with evidence around missing the spirits and really providing concrete wellness benefits.


Josh: Well, this is a really interesting topic and I have heard about your organization for several years. I thought it’s really fascinating. And for any of those listeners who can jump over to YouTube, you actually have a beautiful garden right behind you. And so that’s kind of fun to be able to see, but I think a lot of operators and owners in our industry and senior housing have seen and have had various types of whether we call it garden clubs, or maybe you’ll see some communities with raised planters outside that are sometimes easy or not easy to get to. And we know that there are residents that come into our communities that really enjoy this, but I am very intrigued because I didn’t realize there was a whole line of study and research around the benefits. So I’ve heard a lot about the different types of therapies, everything from physical and occupational music therapies to pet therapies, but this is a topic, call me ignorant, but I’m not very educated on. So I would love to know in your years of study and research, particularly because you mentioned loneliness, that’s always been a relevant topic in our industry, but specifically coming out of the pandemic year where that was fighting loneliness and resident engagement and things like that. It’s a very relevant topic. So can you talk us through a little bit of some of the benefits?


Orla: Yeah, of course. Well, research shows that loneliness was an issue in senior living even prior to the pandemic and certainly it’s been challenged even more so now. I think one of the data points we had is that 40% of residents were documented before COVID of having experienced loneliness. And we know the challenges how this can of course affect residents, but it also affects the health care costs and some new powerful research came out the year before last in 2019 and systematic reviews. So these are a series of studies, not just one study, but rather a series of studies showing how therapeutic horticulture was one of the top interventions to help address loneliness in senior living and specifically not just therapeutic horticulture, but indoor gardening. So that came out in the aging and mental health science journal back in 2019. And the three top interventions for loneliness and senior living one was of course the therapeutic gardening or therapeutic horticulture, two was reminiscing therapy and three was laughter therapy.

So those were noted as top interventions. And of course I say because I’m so entrenched in it, but therapeutic gardening really ties into reminiscing therapy because what happens with therapeutic gardening is you ignite the senses and it helps to spark positive memories. And that’s how it helps to improve molinas because it gives people a sense of place and a sense of identity through reminiscing and sparks positive memories. And it also lends to great opportunities for socialization. So gardening is a wonderful opportunity for group gatherings and brings people together in that fashion.


Josh: Well, it seems to me as I’m just sitting here trying to break down and I think I have probably just gone right over the top of the significance of how many aspects and how many sensors and sensories effects that this has. But, you know, I’m thinking and you correct me if I’m wrong, cause I’m the idiot here just like making up things, but it seems to me when you start thinking about gardening, whether it’s indoor outdoor, but let’s just use indoor. I mean, the residents are using touch, they’re involved in the soil and the plant, whether it’s watering or seeding or helping to nurture that they’re, they’re remembering to check on that they’re checking in. So they have a sense of purpose to help nurture something. And then also I’m assuming with the visual sensory pretension potentially taste and smell, depending on what they’re gardening. So there’s a ton of things going on here. Am I just running down the wrong path or am I touching on some of the things


Orla: You’re hitting it right on the spot. Horticultural therapy is unique in that it engages all the five senses. So, I like in horticultural therapy, you mentioned earlier how you’re aware of other types of therapies, like say animal assisted therapy and then there’s art therapy and there’s music therapy. So I often like it to those types of therapies, which are non-pharmacological. What makes horticultural therapy unique is that it hits all five senses. So there is that opportunity to touch on taste and certainly all the factors, you can smell the fragrance herbs, and there’s the opportunity to visually stimulate through the colorful plants and our gardens; we always have to try to have at least five colors. For example, we do culinary classes. So part of what we do at ElderGrow is we have therapeutic programming.

And so our educators come on site to the senior living community twice a month and all of our curriculum and all of our classes incorporate those senses. And we really strive to create socialization opportunities, as well as ignite the senses through those classes. So we’ll do a cooking class for example, Josh, the residents will grow basil by seed and later they’ll harvest it and then they’ll make an herb salad or a caprese salad. And they really get a sense of accomplishment. Not only are they, you know, indulging in the senses and in a social setting, but they’re also this sense of accomplishment for having grown something successfully and now eating the fruits of their labor. So it’s really a win on so many levels.


Josh: So Orla, you know, speaking just from my standpoint, not Lucas, he’s Mr. Green thumb, but from Josh, like I can kill just about anything very quickly. If I’m an administrator about trying to get some therapies going in my pro in my community. Is this something that only the people that kind of have gardening experience are either going to be able to do or interested in, or is there a way to kind of without a ton of expense, get into offering a horticulture therapy program even for a dummy like me?


Orla: Well I don’t know about that, but I meant the dummy part. We want to impact as many residents and are really adamant about that. I worked in senior living and I know how imperative it is to really engage as many residents as possible. So for that reason, we don’t just do gardening classes, we’d really limit our impact. So we’ll do garden art classes, for example, we’ll teach classes as you heard earlier; culinary classes so we can engage all the foodies. So really important that we have a diverse curriculum, as far as the gardening and the green thumb part goes. We have two different programs, one of which is full service. So our team of educators come and they actually provide the garden care, but at the end of the day, it’s not that hard to care for the gardens because it’s a controlled setting.

There’s a grow light that helps to illuminate the plants, but also access the sun. And there’s plants that we really use that thrive in the garden and they’re also very aromatic. So, we really are able to handle anyone with concerns around not having a green thumb because we provide a full service program. We have another program that is DIY. So even in that setting, while we don’t physically come to the communities, what we do is we provide garden coaching virtually over say, video chat. So we still can hold the residents hands or the staff’s hands and give custom coaching to really help make sure the gardens thrive.


Josh: So you’re telling me, there’s a chance, is basically what you’re telling me from anyone from Mr. Green thumb Lucas, to you know, gardening for dummies there’s an opportunity to start a whole horticulture therapy program in, in our communities.

I do have a question. I don’t want to take us too much off topic, but I’m learning a lot about you and this topic, which is great. That’s why I hope our listeners are as well, but you spent a lot of time in Ireland and kind of doing these sorts of things and Alzheimer’s care. Now when you look at Ireland and when you look at the US what are comparisons in contrast to senior care, elder care population care? What are some of the contrasts and comparisons that you see?


Orla: That’s a good question. What I saw in Ireland is a very vast infrastructure around the volunteer organizations. In this instance, the Alzheimer’s Society, there are branches providing respite care for elders and people living with dementia. What was notable in terms of differences is how we here in the states have that assisted living care model that really hasn’t grown in the sense that it has here in the past couple of decades. So there are a lot of loved ones who are cared for at home in Ireland or through the nonprofit infrastructure. And they don’t have as many opportunities as we have here in the states with all of the different care models and assisted living and memory care or skilled care. They have skilled care, but they don’t have the other options for more independent living.


Josh: Interesting. Well, thank you for kind of educating us on that. I think sometimes we get in our bubble here in the states or in our specific states and we don’t really understand how we stack up against other countries and we can learn things. And then also, you know, a lot of times we beat up ourselves here in the states about we need to be doing this better, which we need to be doing a lot of things better, but it’s good to hear that. It sounds like some of the things that we’ve done here are fairly innovative and provide some more opportunities. So it’s really good. So Lucas, you get to see a ton of communities as you’re out doing renovation and helping people reshape and rethink. What do you think about horticulture therapy? Is this something you’ve been in touch with very much?


Lucas: I’ve seen it a couple of times in these communities, and I think it’s fascinating. I think that this is as relevant as it’s ever been given the opportunities that senior living has right now to bring people back to the community and bring that back to the forefront in a very meaningful way. So I think that as operators are looking at various ways to engage their residents, I think that there’s no one solution that solves all of that. I think that you have to have many, many different things. And to me, this seems like a very unique and fun way to connect, not only together with the caregivers and the residents themselves, but just create that sense of community. So I love it. I think that it’s something that our listeners are going to be interested in and would love to get their feedback on this too.


Josh: Awesome. Well, this has really been fun. I know you have a wealth of information. You have a wealth of services in your organization and your background as a horticultural therapist. I can’t wait for our listeners to connect with you. I know many probably have heard because you’ve been in the industry for awhile educating and offering your services. But for those that haven’t looked forward to them being able to view this episode to listen to this episode and connect with you as Lucas is going to definitely tell them how to connect and in our show notes.

Lucas: Yes, Orla, I thank you so much for spending time with us today and giving us all this great information. We’ll make sure that your information gets put into our show notes and people can go to to access all the details around this shows and many more make sure that you connect with us on social media. And once again, Orla, I thank you for your time today.


Orla: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me and the opportunity.


Lucas: Awesome. Awesome. Thanks to everybody for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.


Comments are off this post!

174: Orla Concannon