Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community builds garden that brings color, creativity and joy to aging

On a foggy Tacoma winter morning, an elderly couple ambles slowly along a red concrete path. Beside them a fountain cascades down brightly-colored metal umbrellas; dotted along the path are benches in poppy-red, apple-green and yellow; a red bridge arches over a dry stream-bed. A children’s park? No. This is the brand-new garden and art center at Tacoma Lutheran Retirement Community, to be dedicated at an open house Jan. 24, where residents, donors and a design team have created a place that brings creativity and joy to old age.

“People think of retirement living as being about death, but it’s about life — a different life,” said community executive director Ruthmarie Zimmerman, who worked with Terrell Design on the plan. “We want this to be the new way you age. You come here and play.”

And for a soccer-field-size area, there definitely are many ways to play: Sculpture, water, gardening, art, outdoor eating. Finished just this month, the plaza, garden and art center on the northeast corner of the community campus grew out of a need to replace a small pea-patch on a site pegged for the retirement home’s new Memory Care Home.

“Gardening is essential to (the residents),” said board member Sally Ann McLean, who’ll move into the community in a month. The retirement community offers residential space for all levels of care, from independent-living cottages to dementia care.

A 2013 campaign, anchored by a $1 million gift from Bill and Joyce Edwards of Tacoma, raised enough not just for a plaza, veggie beds and tree-filled landscape, but also an art building, funded by Tacoma-born glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose cousin is a resident. Planting was done in November, and the whole thing will be dedicated at a public open house from 1-4 p.m. on Jan. 24.

Most importantly, though, everything about the garden and art center was designed with input from residents to bring ease, activity, community and sheer playfulness to older folks.

A bright red bridge, Japanese-style with black trim and handrail, marks the entrance to the garden, crossing over a bioswale that drains and purifies storm runoff. Native plants like azaleas and red-twig dogwoods dot the berms that give curvy definition to the boundaries, acting also as a windbreak. Grasses and lavender nestle around the dry-rock stream bed; the area drains well enough that they’ll thrive, Zimmerman said. Small cedars add to the Japanese appearance along the path, which leads to the plaza, where colorful benches cozy up to fire pits. In the center is a fountain: Above a pentagonal base with wide sitting rims rise three whimsical metal umbrellas (also red, yellow and green), one blown inside out, redirecting the water as it flows into the pool. A tile frieze of white and gray bubbles adds to the childlike joy, and the whole thing is lit at night.

“I wanted something indicative of Washington, and whimsical,” says Zimmerman, who found Seattle artist Annette Lucille to make the fountain.

From the plaza a wide walk leads to lanes between 49 planters of varying heights for standing, sitting or kneeling, and equipped with poles to support either netting or gardeners who need help getting up. Most planters already have been claimed for use and await spring planting. Bronze planter urns flank the end of the walk, and nearby a tall weather vane spins atop a greenhouse that offers winter gardening possibilities.

From the plaza, the pale-red path winds meditatively between the stands of tall fir trees and newly-planted maples, leading to sitting places beneath a metal pergola, a sculpted metal tree, a wooden gazebo. In one corner is a bamboo grove, paved and furnished with a “living table” — a bronze-painted aluminum table inset with two stripes of succulents and a three-inch rivulet of water running down the middle into a bowl of sea-glass. A vine-leafed metal tea trolley waits nearby. Residents have already begun reserving the table for family dinners, says Zimmerman.

“It’s just magical when it’s lit up at night,” she adds.

If the new garden seems a perfect place for children to explore, that’s no accident.

“We wanted it to be an intergenerational place,” explains McLean. “Sometimes visiting the grandparents’ house can be boring. Here kids can identify with the colors, run down the paths.”

And inside the 3,000-square foot art center, dove-white with reddish-brown beams and a vaguely Scandinavian farmhouse vibe, older residents can play too. There’s a wood workshop with all the power tools and benches you could want, a ceramics room, a light-filled painting room with easels, sinks and storage, and a sewing room outfitted with big cutting tables and pull-out drawer lockers for sewing machines. Everything’s designed for ease and comfort: easy-reach outlets, non-scorch irons, waist-high work tables – but also for inspiration, with huge windows and French doors looking out onto the garden. There’s even a hallway gallery, where Dale Chihuly has donated an indigo-blue splatter painting, “For Betty,” and a companion yellow “macchia” glass sculpture. Almost daily the more independent residents of the 30-acre community meet for art classes, and the covered, heated verandah overlooks the garden with tables and rocking chairs, complete with playful stripy cushions.

“Leslie and I were pleased to...offer our support,” Chihuly said in an email. “(It) will enable seniors in my hometown to have an accessible environment in which to make art and explore...creative expression.”

“I think we exceeded Dale’s expectations,” Zimmerman says.

It’s clear from the smiles on the faces of residents as they stroll around the fountain the joy the garden already brings to this community. But for Zimmerman, it’s something more.

“This is the first of anything like this around here,” she says. “It’s been the highlight of my career. I can’t think of anything better to have done. It makes a difference for generations to come.”