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An Interview with Emma Rooney
May 28, 2019 by Haya Aldoori

On June 16, Emma Rooney will be leading the "Nature as a Healing Partner: A Hands-on Workshop for Caregivers of Older Adults" workshop to help participants to explore simple techniques to incorporate nature and outdoor time into their caregiving routine.
We had a few questions for Emma, which she generously answered.

Emma Rooney

HPNC: Can you tell us about your relationship to nature growing up?

Nature was very alive in my life as a child. My family moved to Canada when I was in Grade 2, and I can still remember looking out the car window and seeing the leaves change colour along the Don Valley Parkway. When the leaves fell, our new neighbours explained to my parents how to rake them up into big piles on a tarpaulin—perfect for jumping into. At Halloween, we were invited next door to carve pumpkins. Learning the landscape of our new home was like learning a new language. With each new experience we felt more connected.

That winter, the first time it snowed, the principal of our elementary school excitedly came over the PA system and invited my younger sister and I to head to a window. It was our very first time seeing flurries and we needed to get outside! We put on our neon snowsuits and oversized winter boots and wore them proudly trying to fit in with our classmates. Later in the season, we got to skate on the frozen river behind our house and discover the best hills for tobogganing. My parents insisted that we wear black garbage bags under our coats for extra insulation and covered our faces with thick Vaseline for protection from the cold. We were so happy to play outside that we barely noticed that we looked different from the other children.

When spring came, my mother started to plant a garden and took us kids to the local White Rose Nursery to pick out a tree. We came home with a pink magnolia, which we planted together in the backyard. The growth of that small shrub into a tree and its annual blooming continues to mark our time here. Even though it’s been a long time since I moved away from my childhood home, making those early nature connections continues to allow me to thrive in the big city. Noticing nature wherever I go acts like an anchor, a reminder that I’m a part of something greater than myself.

HPNC: How did you become interested in helping older adults incorporate nature and creativity into their days?

For the first 10 years of my career, I focused mainly on developing environmental programs for children and youth, often in community gardens. During this time, nature deficit disorder became a recognizable mainstream problem, but it seemed always to be exclusively associated with young people. Support grew for children’s gardens, outdoor classrooms, and nature playgrounds, but there were few ideas for where children should go after they graduated from these spaces. Doing this work, I imagined that by immersing children in nature at a young age we were helping them establish lifelong healthy habits. And yet older adults who reported growing up playing outside seemed more disconnected than ever.

I was seeing retirement homes and long-term care facilities closing access to courtyard gardens from October until May for liability reasons. I was noticing public parks with limited infrastructure to support the accessibility needs of an aging population. I was watching caregivers who were too overwhelmed with responsibility to even consider supporting their loved one’s need to get outside. I was regularly meeting seniors who had been stuck indoors for months on end. It scared me to think that inevitable downsizing would cause my own mother to lose her garden, a source of well-being and creativity for our entire family.

I’ve always known that I needed nature to maintain my health. I’m incredibly grateful to my parents for teaching me to love nature. I want to be doing work that encourages cradle-to-grave nature connections. Having nature as a healing partner is too valuable for any of us to miss out.

HPNC: You often work one-on-one with older adults (and their caregivers) through your business, Blooming Caravan. What are the benefits for caregivers learning from you in a group setting at a workshop?

There’s something more valuable than anything I can teach. I find that creating a space for people to drink a cup of tea together or share a meal to be the most important learning grounds. This is especially the case for caregivers who rarely have an opportunity to meet other caregivers. I’m looking forward to preparing a pot of soup and some homemade bread for the workshop so that we can talk to each other over a nourishing lunch.

Throughout the workshop, I’ll be offering ideas for accessing nature from any location, for incorporating nature into what caregivers already do, and for building their confidence as a nature guide. There will be something for everyone, but equally beneficial will be the chance to problem solve together and hear some of the strategies caregivers in the room have tried and been most successful with.

HPNC: Why is High Park an ideal location for this workshop?

I love High Park! Living in a small apartment without a balcony, I consider High Park my backyard. Offering a workshop in the park is like hosting a porch party. One of my hopes for the workshop is that caregivers will feel like they are on a rejuvenating retreat while learning in nature.

Another reason why High Park is an ideal location is that you get to be part of an already thriving community health centre. We don’t view our public parks this way, yet we sense the good it does us when we’re there. We find ourselves naturally talking to strangers of all ages, greeting dogs, admiring the new leaves on a tree, walking the extra distance to see the ducks, and breathing a little easier. High Park is far from barrier-free, but manage to make it even to the front entrance and you’ll be rewarded. At this time of year, you’ll be greeted by a Canadian redbud in full bloom.

HPNC: Can you share with us a favourite nature experience you facilitated for older adults? Is there something you’re most looking forward to sharing with caregivers at this workshop?

I’m a big fan of maps, and one of my favourite activities to facilitate is getting participants to map the green spaces closest to them, starting from what’s right outside their window. You don’t have to be good at drawing or have great spatial sense to get something out of mapping. Many people who try it are surprised to uncover that nature is closer than they think. Others find out how much or how little they know about the green spaces around them. Either way, when you go home, you have an urge to look closer. It can also be a great tool for creating your own accessibility shortcuts and identifying the spaces that are most important for you to be able to reach. I hope you’ll consider joining us to try it out.

More about Emma:

Emma is the founder of Blooming Caravan, a High Park business that offers in-home creative companionship visits for seniors. Her philosophy of care weaves together caring for both the land and people. Emma has worked at several innovative organizations, including the High Park Children’s Garden, Greenest City, and Ecosource. She enjoys using her design skills to engage people of diverse backgrounds in environmental and social justice issues. She is also a passionate educator who loves sharing her knowledge through presentations on a variety of subjects, including gardening for mental health, making local food accessible, community mapping, and intergenerational storytelling. Emma is the horticultural therapist at Peel Manor Long Term Care Centre, a Toronto Master Gardener, and a volunteer at the High Park Nature Centre.

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