Breaking New Ground with Dementia-Friendly Farming

Momentia Seattle is a community focused on creating a “new” Alzheimer’s disease and dementia story — one apart from fear and isolation. The organization focuses on empowering people with dementia in the Northwest and helping them live in the moment through dementia-friendly activities.Breaking New Ground with Dementia-Friendly Farming

Learn more about their incredible work and opportunities for people living with dementia, like the Urban Farming Volunteer Program.

Urban Farming Volunteer Program

The first thing you notice when you pull into the gravel drive at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands is how far away you suddenly feel from the city — despite the fact that you’re still within the city limits. The shores of Lake Washington border the wetlands in multiple directions, and the landscape is wet and green and smells of freshly turned earth. The only structures are a pair of large greenhouses and a small cabin-like structure.

On this day, a few different groups of volunteers were busy working different parts of the farm, and the rows of crops were positively popping with chard and kale and various greens. Mary Firebaugh, a farming participant, says:

“I’m just paying attention to my senses — all the things around me that I’m hearing, seeing, tasting.”

Participants arrive in the morning, take part in the opening activity, and then set to work. As their caregivers know well, seniors living with Alzheimer’s and dementia can derive great satisfaction from taking part in activities that give them a sense of purpose, and for those who have enjoyed being outdoors and gardening, the Urban Farming Volunteer Program offers exactly that.

A Sense of Community

Urban Farming

In addition, the program affords participants a natural and close-knit sense of community. At the conclusion of a day’s work, the volunteers enjoy a potluck-style lunch together. Before that, however, they gathered around a table in one of the greenhouses, where Mari Becker — who, in addition to being the host of the Urban Farming Volunteer Program, is closely involved with Momentia Seattle — invited everybody to share what the experience was like for them.

As they shared, it became clear that the through-lines for everybody were the calm and peace that comes with getting out into nature and connecting with it. Participant Martha Crawford, who planted trees for a living in her younger years, shares:

“You feel like you’re out in the woods because of all the big trees around you. But you’re on this farm, and it feels so good to be out here.”

Meanwhile, Tamara Keefe, the facilitator from Elderwise, offered a caretaker’s perspective: “I found myself savoring the last time we were going to be together this season, and seeing how different things are from when we first gathered together — that tree that’s now covered with red berries, for instance. Those green peppers over there, where did they come from? There’s so much work needed on this farm, and it’s rewarding to be part of doing that work.”

In short, the experience of participating in the Urban Farming Volunteer Program over the course of the season had left everyone present on that final day with a look of satisfied contentment. Bo Lee, this season’s program facilitator and MSW grad student at the University of Washington, commented that, “It’s been a tremendous experience. Mari just let me jump right in — it’s just been awesome.” Participant Paul Padilla adds:

“It was very relaxing, just pulling the weeds. Very peaceful. I’m happy we came.”

Momentia Seattle

Seattle Tilth

When we communicated in more depth about the program and it’s participants, Becker gave some back story about the term “Momentia” and what it stands for:

“It is a term of affirmation, celebrating the new story being told about dementia based on hope, joy and living in the moment. It’s also the name for a movement involving a variety of organizations and community members that are focusing on the strengths of persons living with dementia and the gifts they bring to community, and working together to offer myriad vibrant dementia-friendly opportunities — things like art gallery tours at the Frye Art Museum, Alzheimer’s Cafe experiences at local coffee shops, and volunteering at the farm. So it’s not necessarily a “program” or an “organization,” but a movement around a concept. We originally were inspired by Dr. John Zeisel and his It Takes A Village program.

As to how this particular program got its start, Becker offered a bit of history: “This particular program blossomed out of a community development process in Southeast Seattle, where some people with dementia, CRE partners, plus staff from Elderwise, Seattle Parks, Southeast Senior Center and Full Life all participated in a series of meetings in which the persons with dementia expressed their interests, passions and ideas for what kinds of things they’d like to do in the neighborhood. Gardening was one of the interests. We reached out to Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetland to see if we could participate in their regular volunteer program, and they have been very gracious in welcoming us and helping us find tasks that are a great fit.”

If you’d like to find more dementia-friendly opportunities in the greater Seattle area, we invite you to check out the Momentia Calendar, which, as Becker notes, “is maintained by a local community member who was originally diagnosed with MCI but is now… better!” Regular and upcoming opportunities include the Out & About Walks, which take place every 2nd and 4th Friday of the month, and the Greenwood Alzheimer’s Cafe, which happens on the second Tuesday of the month at the Stage Door Cafe of Taproot Theatre. There are also a few new Alzheimer’s Cafes, one in the Central District and one in West Seattle.

Do you or a senior loved one take part in dementia-friendly activities? How do you or your family find empowerment while living with dementia? Share your story in the comments below.

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