Joy and dignity among cultures as PEI patients help maintain flower beds

When Nancymarie Arsenault started working at Hospice PEI as Executive Director five years ago, she heard about a client who was struggling with food insecurity.

This led her to apply for funding to create four raised garden beds at the Provincial Hospice, where Hospice PEI’s offices were located.

“I got a few comments like, ‘Are you going to grow food for people who are dying?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, they’re still eating,'” she said.

She called the project Gardens of Life. Now it has expanded to 19 boxes at the hospice near Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, as well as five long-term care homes where hospice volunteers help.

Some of this year’s Gardens of Life, thriving thanks to good summer growing conditions. (Submitted by Nancymarie Arsenault)

Over the years, the project has become much more than just providing food, Arsenault said.

“In long-term care homes, residents would help me plant them when I brought in the seedlings,” she said.

“Not everyone sees the fruits because they may die before it happens. But life goes on. And we always say, ‘Our job is not to die, but to live.’ And these Gardens of Life help create that message.”

“Little things we can do”

Arsenault plants the boxes herself, then facility staff help watch over them, watering and weeding the plants.

She grows small vegetables and edible flowers, but she mixes the varieties every year. The first summer there were old tomatoes and peppers, for example.

Food is available for anyone who wants or needs it, Arsenault said.

One year, she grew beets and left them in the community kitchen at the Provincial Center for Palliative Care. “Then someone came back with a jar of pickled beets they had made with the beets we had left there.”

In the first year of the project, the products were collected and distributed to patients and staff at the Provincial Center for Palliative Care. (Submitted by Nancymarie Arsenault)

In addition to providing food, the project has allowed joy to flourish in places that many consider to lack this quality.

Arsenault remembers a few years ago, when Hospice PEI volunteers were supporting a patient who was not in a good situation mentally and physically.

One day, she saw from her office that a volunteer had managed to get the woman outside to get some fresh air and inspect the garden bins.

“It brought him great joy,” Arsenault said. “At one point she asked if she could work for the charity. We thought about it and made her our official Hospice Garden Inspector for the time she was at the hospice. “

island morning6:20Hospice gardens

A need for nourishment and joy. Over the past few years, Hospice PEI has created planters in many facilities across PEI.

They even made the patient a Hospice PEI ID card that dangled from a lanyard.

“She’s since passed away. It was a few years ago, but she wore it with pride,” Arsenault said.

“These little things that we can do to make people’s lives enjoyable, meaningful, have dignity – but we can make these things happen for people, we try our best. And gardening certainly does part.”

“A Match Made in Heaven”

Arsenault said the project was able to continue and grow with help from the community. This year, for example, she received plant donations from Charlottetown resident Cindy Burton.

Burton was starting a small seed business and a few months ago was doing germination tests on all the different seeds they would offer. She made a Facebook post offering to donate the seedlings. They were all gone by the time Arsenault reached out.

Arsenault, middle, is seen planting edible nasturtiums with residents of a Charlottetown long-term care home. (Submitted by Nancymarie Arsenault)

After Arsenault told Burton about Hospice PEI and the Gardens of Life project, she continued to donate a number of tomato and pepper plants.

“It was a perfect match,” Burton said.

Her own father, who is 99, loves gardening and still has a small garden on his patio.

“He’s got something that needs him, something he can get out there and he can prune it, or water it and be in touch with it. Because a lot of times when people are nearing the end of their lives, they don’t feel like they have a purpose. They don’t feel like someone needs them.

“So it…connects people to the cycle of life, but it also connects them to the fact that they are still needed.”

Burton donated a number of tomato and pepper plants to the Gardens of Life project this summer. (Thinh Nguyen/CBC)

Currently, Arsenault is looking to expand the Gardens of Life project even further.

Among other things, she hopes to create a few more boxes at Hospice PEI’s new office in downtown Charlottetown.

“It is entirely possible that we have our own gardening in this beautiful place where we are. We certainly have the space to do so.”

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