Mary Green has always been active. She held had own career in communications in addition to helping her husband run The Toy Box, a children’s store on Merrimon Avenue. But when Green retired, she faced unfilled days that left her feeling idle and depressed.
“I had worked since I was 17,” Green, 68, says. “I had several careers. Now my son’s grown and my husband’s still working. I just thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
Catherine Frank, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville, says many seniors may face a loss of identity when entering retirement — especially now when many people are retiring earlier and living longer — leaving 20-30 years of retirement to fill.
“Sometimes, when people leave work, they miss the kind of camaraderie that they had in the office,” Frank says. “They need to find ways to continue to build friendships, to have someone to exchange ideas and experiences with.”
Frank says one way seniors can overcome depression is by volunteering — especially with work that requires physical activity and exposure to new skills. In addition to improving social wellness, Frank says, recent studies are finding that activities that require learning new skills, particularly when doing things with your hands, actually help mental health by opening new neural pathways in the brain.
“In contrast to an older vision of aging as a steady decline when it come to the brain, studies are proving more and more that our brains can renew and form new pathways of understanding,” Frank says. “The more we do to stimulate our brains the better our brain health will be.”
For Green, the outlet for discovering new skills and creating new friendships was working in the Grace Covenant Community Garden, started by fellow retirees Buzz and Pat Durham.
“I grew up in Georgia and had to [garden] because we had to have the food to put on the table,” Green says. “I swore I would never have to do that anymore. But now I just can’t wait to get started again.”
Green, who learned how to drive a tractor as part of her workload, says working in Grace Covenant’s garden has allowed her to expand on the skills she learned in childhood. But the garden, which donates 70 percent of its yield to area organizations battling food insecurity, has also been an enriching experience because she knows she is “doing something that I have seen the need for.”
In addition to giving back to the community, a garden can also be a place of emotional solace. Pat Durham, 68, says it’s not uncommon for people to seek out green spaces in times of trial. She tells a story of two people who came to the garden not to volunteer but to “just sit and be” while they spent their days comforting an elderly man who was dying in an area hospital. Durham says she and other volunteers were also able to use time spent gardening together as a way to deal with the anxiety of aging issues with themselves and their elderly parents, as well as the grief of losing a parent or spouse.
“We would be together in the garden, squatting down in the dirt, and we would share those challenges with each other,” Durham says. “There was a real emotional support that came from that — pretty soon you found out there was somebody else facing the same challenge as you.”
That experience didn’t stop at talking in the garden. The gardeners started a program at their church to discuss and educate the public about aging issues. And not only did older people come, Durham says, but the sessions were attended by younger people as well.
Gardening can also be a way to continue learning throughout life, and some volunteer gardeners, like Glenn Palmer, 85, may even turn the activity into a second, or in Palmer’s case, third career.
Palmer, who retired from the Army before beginning a career as an engineer for Caterpillar, began his second retirement at age 58. He quickly signed on to be a horticulture consultant at a zoo in Illinois, then considered one of the worst zoos in the country. He worked to make the animal habitats more natural, and when he and his wife moved to Asheville in 1989, he immediately began volunteering at the WNC Nature Center.
“I got involved in volunteering as a selfish education endeavor,” Palmer says. “I thought, ‘I don’t know much about this, so how am I going to find out?’”
Palmer has since worked for more than two decades as both a volunteer and volunteer coordinator at the N.C. Arboretum, in addition to becoming both a Master Gardener with Buncombe County Cooperative Extension and president emeritus of the Botanical Gardens of Asheville. He also wrote a regular column on gardening for the Asheville Citizen-Times for 15 years. He currently spends a minimum of 20 hours per week in his volunteering career.
“I’m still being selfish, really,” Palmer says. “I would hate to be in a position where I wasn’t learning something.”
Palmer says volunteering in horticulture allowed him to explore his interest in botany, to learn new skills such as tree maintenance and to continue to be challenged through the people he met.
“That’s a bonus that comes with volunteering,” Palmer says. “Not only does it get you out of the house, but it widens your field of contacts and opens all kinds of doors, in terms of meeting interesting people and going new places.”
Some seniors may not be able to make the same time or physical commitments as Palmer, Durham or Green, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to incorporate gardening into their lives, says Jenny Mercer, 59. She is helping to launch a community garden at Congregation Beth HaTephila, which she says will be open to people of all ages.
Seniors who struggle with the physical requirements of gardening can find other ways to participate, Mercer says, such as teaching children about how to grow food or cook traditional meals. Seniors can also help deliver the gardens’ bounty to those in need or simply teach others how to prepare meals using local ingredients.
“Some of the older people have said they are not able to work in the garden, but they have a real interest in the outcomes and the goals,” Mercer says. “So even if you’re not able to get out and dig, you can give support in other ways. Everyone’s able to do something.”
To learn more about Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville, visit olliasheville.com. For more information on Grace Covenant’s community garden, visit gcpcusa.org/#/our-community-garden. For more information on Congregation Beth HaTephila’s community garden, call 253-4911.