Model train becomes unique form of therapy

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Meandering under a bridge and past replicas of houses, barns and churches, a model train at Parkwood Hospital in London, Ontario is a symbol of years long gone, hard-working men, and boyhood passions. But this train is on a very special journey.

With every loop of the track, it uncovers buried memories and retrieves happy moments. It awakens curiosity, sparks conversation, triggers new interest, or simply elicits a smile. The G-scale model train and about 115 feet of railway is an innovative addition to the therapeutic programs at Parkwood, part of St. Joseph’s Health Care, London.

Chugging through a newly created outdoor courtyard garden, the railway is a unique tool being used by Parkwood’s therapeutic recreation specialists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and others to engage patients and residents in meaningful activity that can improve physical and cognitive skills, and enhance well-being. It’s generating much excitement among staff, patients and residents, for its leisure as well as therapeutic benefits.

For patients with dementia, for example, the railroad can have a profound impact, says therapeutic recreation specialist Nancy Bowers-Ivanski.

“This is a patient population that has experienced so many losses. Most of them have an awareness that they are losing their ability to reason and think logically. To be able to participate in an activity where, for those moments, they are engaged, they’re happy, they’re experiencing success, they’re socializing with their peers Ñ that’s what my job is about. And it happens in the garden because the train is capturing old memories.”

For anyone with difficulties with memory, it’s easier to tap long term memory,” adds Laura Giandomenico, professional practice leader, therapeutic recreation. “We’re tapping old interests. And when something is personally relevant, it’s more beneficial.”

For many Parkwood veterans, meanwhile, the train is pure pleasure. After World War II, the railroad became the livelihood for many veterans, including 90-year-old Harold Burton.

“It’s been part of my life always,” says Burton, whose stories and memories flow easily when on the topic of trains. “I have a great love for locomotives.”

Burton worked for the CNR for 21 years, first as a labourer cleaning the fireboxes, then for the railway mail service. Several family members also earned their living on the rails. He and other veterans often gather to share stories of their railway experiences and, in the veterans arts program, residents are now building scenery for the model railroad.

Parkwood’s train runs along the edge of a raised garden for easy access and is a focal point in the courtyard. But it’s just one leisure and therapeutic opportunity available in the unique space. The entire courtyard is carefully designed to meet the diverse needs of Parkwood’s patients and residents, providing a variety of opportunities to develop skills while enjoying the outdoors.

The gardens are raised with a cantilever design for unobstructed access in a wheelchair. Patients and residents can practice gardening from a seated position using special tools that telescope or are designed specifically for one-handed gardening. The gardening is enjoyable while allowing individuals to work on a wide range of skills such as balance, strength and fine motor control.

Steps and ramps are incorporated into various other amenities, such as a bridge that extends over the model railway. Physiotherapists and occupational therapists can work with patients and residents on walking, step climbing and wheelchair skills.

At the same time, a gazebo provides families with a quiet place to gather.

The $275,000 gardens and railway were built with donor dollars in a previously empty courtyard of the hospital, which had little to draw people outdoors. The idea came from the patients and residents, who expressed interest in trains, gardening, and a quiet place to visit with family, says Giandomenico.

The London Garden Railroad Society was contacted to help with the project, which became a fundraising focus for the New St. Joseph’s Health Care Foundation.

“One of the most meaningful things is that we, as front line staff, can make something like this happen,” says Bowers Ivanski. It’s a perfect example of us hearing from our patients, an interdisciplinary group hatching an idea, and having administration respond. The fact that it’s here is extraordinary.”