Lovering’s Landscapes

Creating sensuous landscapes for the elderly is one of Mary Jane Lovering’s passions.

A Toronto landscape architect, Lovering focuses a major part of her practice on designing alluring outdoor space for retirement homes and long-term-care facilities. Bright colors, fragrances, wind chimes, fountains and gazebos — all of which appeal to the senses — are used to entice the elderly outside. In addition to esthetics, the physical aspects of aging must be addressed. So when Lovering sits down to design, she visualizes beautiful landscapes that will accommodate wheelchairs, walkers or failing eyesight, and even dementias.

“These facilities are home for these people — often their last one — and they deserve to be provided with all the accoutrements of a home, including outdoor space. You have to create a space that is pleasant to look at, that has some variety and something worth experiencing. Privacy is also a major problem in institutions,” she emphasizes.

Meeting elderly needs
Lovering, 44, knows this only too well. Her first career as a physiotherapist involved working with the elderly, including a home-care program. After six years, shreturned to school to earn a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Toronto. Added to this were courses in gerontology to gain a sensitivity for the special needs of the elderly.

In 1981, she and partner Inese Bite formed Vertechs Design Inc. Lovering recognized a gap in landscape design for seniors, noting that patients went through major adjustments after being discharged from hospitals. Often, their houses were almost hostile environments, limiting their all-important independence.

“Once they got home they had difficulty getting outside because of elevators or heavy doors. Even if they wanted to go outside, there was nowhere to go. We wanted to create environments that were easy to get to and through. We had to get them out the door that has no thresholds, and once they got out, was there something to do?” Lovering asked.

In a 1983 study, she examined 10 nursing homes and their approaches to designing outdoor space for the elderly. “We wanted to learn how to design better to meet their needs such as surfaces, privacy, seasonal changes and shade,” she says. Over the past 14 years, she has garnered a long list of credits. She works closely with the client, discussing budget and costs as they progress. Major long-term-care designs include the Windsor Western Hospital, the Sunnybrook Geriatric Centre and the West Park Hospital. Roof terraces, courtyard gardens and gardens for residents with dementias are part of her designs. She’s also created homey atmospheres for a number of seniors’ retirement homes.

Belmont House
Located across the street from the Vertechs office is Belmont House, an upscale retirement home with a comfortable feeling of community. Blanche Douglas, a spry 92-year-old resident of six years, almost sings her praise of the home. “As a seniors’ residence it can’t be beaten,” she says.

Not only is the indoor space attractive, the landscaping is so inviting that many residents take a daily stroll around the entire grounds. Lovering first developed a landscape to complement the new addition in 1991.There is a wild-flower walk parallel to Davenport Avenue which then comes upon a raised garden, passing through a therapeutic area for occupational and physiotherapy. This flows beyond to flowering trees and perennial plants that change with the seasons. There’s even a putting green for golf enthusiasts and a sitting area.

Lovering also designed a second floor roof terrace for the residents who are in special care units. In the older section there’s a terrace and solarium overlooking the city. “It was in this room that I celebrated my 90th birthday”, Mrs. Douglas proudly says. It’s this feeling of community and independence that makes Belmont such a successful retirement home.

Designing for the elderly requires close attention to the senses. Since vision is low, Lovering chooses stronger colors rather than pastels. The contrast of red roses and white petunias around a doorway will make it stand out avoiding the fear of losing one’s way. She likes to use plenty of color with flowers blooming at different times. To appeal to smell, she adds fragrant herbs and plants. Texture is very important since the touch is the last sense to go. This sensory awareness can be achieved with a dry stone wall, plants with hairy and smooth leaves and interesting barks on shrubs.

Since sitting and walking are the two major activities, a walkway must be safe and wide enough with frequent rest stops and sturdy chairs with arm rests and backs. For patients with dementias including Alzheimer’s, Lovering has designed a figure-eight walkway with landmarks for orientation at Chester Village home for the aged. “What we want is purposeful wandering where there are things to look at rather than pacing back and forth,” she points out. Shade from the glare of the sun can be achieved with a gazebo or by planting trees. Small private spaces that minimize distractions are important for hearing. With safety a major issue hidden spaces are to be avoided because the elderly may not hear and don’t know what’s happening.

“No matter how many problems you have, we all want to maintain our independence. Designing landscapes to help the elderly remain independent makes them feel that they can accomplish things and their self-esteem will be raised,” adds Lovering.
Carol Lawlor is a freelance writer living in Toronto.