When the morning isn’t too brisk, Elsie Jepsen takes a book and a handful of cat food to the wooden benches in the flower gardens of Brookdale Charlotte East.
She’ll sit and read, keeping one eyed trained on the nearby woods, just in case one of the stray cats saunters out for a treat and a scratch under the chin from a familiar hand.
Jepsen, who turned 100 this year, is one of many residents of the senior living facility off Albemarle Road to frequent the new community space designed by third-year UNC Charlotte architectural student and Levine Scholar Isabel Fee.
Fee, 21, created the 1,500-square-foot, park-like setting with seniors in mind. It features wheelchair accessible garden beds and plenty of congregating space through its patios and benches.
The three-month project, finished Oct. 8, was the culmination of two years of fine-tuning the layout. Specially designed pillars support tabletop garden beds raised so wheelchairs can easily roll underneath. Patios built with half-walls house benches in a more private setting for visiting families to gather.
Fee has volunteered at Brookdale Charlotte East since she was a college freshman, and in that time, she noticed how often residents reminisced about days spent outdoors – and how little they actually spent outside.
“A lot of residents only went outside for transport to a doctor’s appointment,” said Fee. “I think it’s really unfortunate that in our late lives, we would be deprived of these places that we love.”
She dedicated the year to holding meetings with a board of seniors to find out what would motivate them to spend more time outside. A garden accessible for those in wheelchairs or with arthritic bodies was the most frequent wish, so Fee got to work.
The project was funded as part of Fee’s Levine scholars community project, which provides an $8,000 grant to each scholar for community service. The garden space came in just under that amount, said Fee.
For many, like Nanella Warren, 83, the garden is a wonderful reminder of their pasts.
“We had beautiful, beautiful flowers. Our front yard had everything you could imagine. Beautiful things up and down the walkway,” said Warren, who grew up in Atlanta.
Warren was one of the first to sink her hands into the soil of the raised beds, planting red chrysanthemums.
“I think Isabel has done a remarkable job,” she said. “It helps to make the yard much, much more attractive.”
But there was a time when Fee worried the space wouldn’t be enough to get the seniors outdoors. Her doubts grew on the last evening of construction, she said, as she and her team of 30 volunteers hammered in the final nails.
By early morning, she began to wonder if her efforts would be meaningful to anyone.
Then she spotted Jepsen walk down and sit on one of the new benches.
For Jepsen, who’s not interested in gardening, it’s a place to spend time with the few stray cats that roam nearby. As a child and as an adult growing up in the country, helping strays was what got her outside.
“I was always taught that they were God’s creatures, that he had made them for a purpose, and it was up to us to take care of them,” said Jepsen. “That’s the way I grew up, and that’s the way I’m going to die, I guess.”
Jepsen was the first to use the new community space, and her presence restored Fee’s confidence in the project. “I saw her lit up in the sun, and it made me think, ‘this place is going to be used,’” said Fee.
Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org