July 13, 2020

New greenhouse aids therapy at Dix center

BANGOR – The warm and bright atmosphere of the new Douglas J. Schwartz Greenhouse at the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center makes a welcome retreat from the crisp fall air and approaching winter weather.

For the 60 patients living at the center and numerous outpatients, the building will provide much more than shelter; it will help improve their physical and mental well-being, according to center officials.

Flowers and plants of all colors, sizes, shapes and scents already embellish the greenhouse, which is being used as a part of the center’s horticultural therapy program. The facility was built in a recreational alcove behind DDPC’s main building.

A patio and garden surround it with an even wider variety of plants, patio furniture and a fountain. Off to one side is the small garden that was once the only space available for gardening and therapy.

Horticultural therapy uses plants and gardening as a way to promote an individual’s or group’s mental or physical health and wellness.

“It gets the patients out of the unit. It’s a relaxed, friendly environment,” Nancy MacDonald, chief of therapeutic recreation, said recently. “They feel the rewards of growing, tending, and making something of their own; it gives them a feeling of accomplishment.”

MacDonald and Mary Louise McEwen, DDPC superintendent, wanted to find someone to help get their new horticulture program on its feet, so they asked Rachel Putnam.

Putnam, 46, of Milford has a bachelor’s degree in landscape horticulture from the University of Maine, with a concentration in horticultural therapy. Before that, she served 20 years in the U.S. Navy before retiring in 1998, she said on Friday.

“Gardening can build spirits up,” Putnam said, during an interview at the greenhouse. “It’s something that [the patients] can have control over, when they aren’t able to control much else in their lives.”

The goals of the horticultural DDPC therapy program, which has been in place for only a month or so, are to allow individuals to express feelings and ideas, increase self-esteem and basic social skills and improve their task focus and motor skills.

Putnam plans on inviting other students involved with UM’s horticulture programs to participate in internships at the DDPC.

The 10-by-15-foot greenhouse, valued at about $15,000, was paid for by the Douglas J. Schwartz Foundation, which administers the Greenhouse Grant Program with help from the American Horticulture Therapy Association.

The foundation provides greenhouses or grants to pay for them, which are used to treat patients with mental and physical illnesses through horticultural therapy.

The families of two former members of the DDPC staff, Michael Parks and Andy Andrei, paid for the landscaping and improvements to the area outside the greenhouse.

The DDPC staff will target individual patients who show interest and will select others based on how much they think the patients will benefit from the program.

Putnam said she has a very basic, fluid lesson plan for patients who participate in the therapy program. Patients will be able to choose which plants they would like to grow and tend.

During the Christmas season, poinsettias and other festive flowers will fill the greenhouse, and flowers that were uprooted before the winter season, such as carnations and mums, will be dried for the patients to keep during the winter months.

“All I need to know about life I learned in the garden,” Putnam said, citing a quote from an AHTH document about the benefits of horticultural therapy.

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