Landscape as a Narrative for Healing: SCJers Design Outdoor Spaces for Memory Care Residents

CarePartners Senior Living community, Covington.

With more than a thousand plants at each site, walking into the courtyard of a CarePartners Senior Living memory care community feels more like entering a botanical garden than a typical care facility. CarePartners has locations throughout Washington state, bringing deliberately designed outdoor spaces together with cottage-style living for residents with physical and cognitive challenges.

CarePartners Memory Care Community, Lacey.

Undulating figure-eight paths wind amongst a wide variety of flowers, trees, and shrubs. Quirky, handcrafted birdhouses are tucked into the landscape, adding an element of discovery. Whimsical, 12-foot-tall glass and metal kinetic sculptures provide a bright visual anchor and color throughout the year.

Chris Overdorf and Sydney Dean, SCJ’s Wenatchee Landscape Architecture team, collaborate closely with Round Lake Development to design these outdoor spaces for CarePartners. The SCJers are now on their eighth project, The Cottages of Spokane, with more in the queue.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 120,000 Washingtonians age 65 and older were living with Alzheimer’s dementia in 2020, with 295,000 unpaid caregivers helping care for them. With the number of patients expected to increase to 140,000 by 2025, the need for memory care is growing.

In addition to memory loss, people with dementia often get disoriented in familiar places, have trouble walking, and lose their inhibitions. Depression and apathy are also common Alzheimer’s symptoms.

A handcrafted birdhouse.

Meeting the variety of challenges residents face is central to the designs Chris and Sydney develop. Physical activity improves cognitive health and helps slow brain attrition, so walking paths are a central feature. The paths are designed without right angles, aiding walkers in finding their way back to the start. Mailboxes, where staff drop letters and packages, bring messages from friends and family while connecting residents to a lifelong routine.

One challenge Chris and Sydney encounter is developing new concepts and the language to describe them.

“The language of the landscape creates a narrative for healing, and it is always evolving as needed,” said Sydney. “Since the design team is closely connected with maintenance and admin staff of working facilities, we are constantly refining the design based on their feedback.”

CarePartners Memory Care Community, University Place.

But the focus remains the same for each project: creating outdoor spaces that are not only safe and secure, but that help spark memories and provide a comforting environment for residents and their families. The gardens are created to improve residents’ quality of life.

To this end, each component is meticulously chosen and placed to help connect residents to the landscape and create a sense of belonging – a feeling of home. A variety of classic plantings, such as zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, and pansies, are carefully placed to engage the senses and create a cheerful kaleidoscope of ever-changing colors.

All the plantings are non-toxic and include a variety of edible plants, such as blueberries and huckleberries. And the landscape as a whole is designed to always be changing, providing a variety of stimulation with spring and summer blooms and fall foliage that can be enjoyed both from the courtyard and looking out through the cottage windows.

Even with so many completed projects under his belt, the initial challenge the client posed to Chris in designing the prototype continues to drive his work. “If my mom were diagnosed with dementia and needed 24/7 care, this place and the garden would feel like home for her.”

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