Tending a garden of sensory delightsIt's a cool misty...


August 28, 1994|By Linell Smith

Tending a garden of sensory delights

It's a cool misty morning. Trees arch over a path bordered by pink sedum, black-eyed Susans and butterfly bushes. Bertha Leschinsky, walking hand in hand with Erma Theiss, shows off the large striped leaves of a hosta plant: "We always call those big hearts," she tells her friend.

Both women, residents of the Meridian Nursing Center in Catonsville, have Alzheimer's Disease. This sensory garden, a fenced-in area next to the building, allows them to touch, smell, even taste things from a past that no longer includes what happened last week.

Debra McConnell, a nurse specializing in gero-psychiatry, helped give it to them. Employed by Genesis Health Ventures, she works with Alzheimer's patients, developing and evaluating programs to help them maintain their mental and motor skills. She helped create the company's first sensory garden last year in Meridian's Severna Park center. Four are now completed.

In designing the prototype garden with Scott Scarfone of Chapel Valley Landscape Architecture, she insisted upon certain conditions: All plants and flowers are safe to eat. There are

colors throughout the year. There are lovely smells, like lemon and peppermint. The winding path is long enough so that residents feel as if they are going somewhere -- with several benches for resting. A raised planting bed, accessible to wheelchairs, allows residents to grow their own vegetables and flowers.

A Baltimore native, Ms. McConnell, 33, received her nursing degree from the University of Maryland at Baltimore and a dual master of science degree from Case Western Reserve University.Working in gero-psychiatry with Alzheimer's patients since 1979, she says the sensory garden makes a big difference:

"The residents are much more alert, not as depressed. They get involved in more activities," she says. "When they visit, you see more smiles." It's a challenge to shine in 50 words or less. So Marsea Gallagher's entry to the McCall's beauty sweepstakes came with a cartoon strip, too. It featured her namesake, a pretty young woman who peers despairingly into a hand mirror.

"My husband tells me I'm beautiful," Ms. Gallagher wrote, "but after years of wearing the same makeup, hairdo and clothes, I'm itching to see what he sees."

Ms. Gallagher won. Her "persuasive pitch" was selected from more than 3,000 entries.

"The words were just very much the truth," says Ms. Gallagher o Olney.

The September issue of McCall's features a three-page account of Ms. Gallagher's transformation in New York, where she spent two days with McCall's editors and beauty experts.

"Even without makeup, it's clear Marsea had the potential to ba knockout," a McCall's editor writes.

And the secret behind Marsea's new look? "Some artfully applied makeup and a shorter, bouncier hairstyle."

"It's great to feel just like I was hoping to feel," says Ms. Gallagher, 27. "My self-esteem shot up 5,000 percent."

But this isn't just another Cinderella story.

Ms. Gallagher, once an aspiring ballerina, has forged a new form of expression, "illustrative cartooning," which she hopes will lead to a flurry of graphic design opportunities.

Of course, alter-ego Marsea will lead the way.

"I consider her very original," Ms. Gallagher says of the cartoon character. "She's charming and very fresh. There is no one else ** who has something like that."

Stephanie Shapiro

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