Green Care Farms takes root

Rebekah Churchyard launched Canada’s first care farm for people with living with dementia

Nestled between apple and cherry tree orchards on a half-acre of rural land between Milton and Guelph, Ont., Green Care Farms is ready for planting. Incorporated in 2021, it is Canada’s first care farm specifically for adults living with dementia, a disease that affects at least 597,000 Canadians today. 

It was about thyme

“You can have horticulture care therapy elements in a program, but to have a care farm, it needs to be operational. You need the blue skies and the open fields. It’s part of the healing in the model,” chief executive officer and founder Rebekah Churchyard (BA ’13, BSW ’14) said.

While common in Europe, few care farms exist in Canada. The model can serve young people with intellectual differences, those living with mental health concerns, mental illness, addictions, and folks who need a bit of support to build skills and an opportunity to belong to a productive community.

For people with dementia, working in the fields with ample support has been shown to reduce cognitive decline, stress and agitation, loneliness and physical pain while improving mood, self-esteem, energy and functional independence.

Churchyard should know. Since launching the social enterprise, she’s seen the difference her business has made for her clients. One man who had worked as a labourer for 45 years took time each Sunday evening to gather tools and other items he thought would be useful for the workday. He may have had difficulty remembering dates and names, but he finally felt he had a purpose again. 

“It was extremely healing. He had something to do. He had jobs and was good at being on a team and listened to direction well,” Churchyard said. “I think with my clients, actions speak louder than words.”

“With my clients, actions speak louder than words.”

Rebekah Churchyard (BA ’13, BSW ’14)

Rebekah Churchyard

It could have been different

Churchyard wishes a care farm had been an option for her grandfather, Ron Goodall, who was diagnosed with early-onset dementia when Churchyard was 14. A farmer and teacher, he was happiest riding his tractor or trimming trees on the family Christmas tree farm, the ultimate retirement project. 

But as his dementia progressed, it became harder for him to spend time outdoors safely. He once poured water into his chainsaw’s gas tank — Churchyard still remembers the plumes of smoke — and despite peripheral vision loss, he continued to ride his tractor. 

Eventually, her grandmother took away the keys for his safety. Boredom and frustration set in, even though he tried a few day programs. 

“He absolutely hated them,” Churchyard remembered. “He wanted to be outside working because that’s who he was — a true-blue farmer through and through.”

Tragically, her grandparents passed away within just four months of each other in 2014. Caregiving had worn her grandmother down. After she died, Churchyard’s grandfather went into a top-quality long-term care facility. But soon, he was gone too. The experience pushed Churchyard to ask how nature could help people with dementia and their caregivers. 

“I was so dissatisfied after my grandparents passed away. I thought, ‘This is so wrong. It could have been different.’ They did everything right, and it was still awful,” she said. 

Doing good in the world

Yet that experience was precisely what guided Churchyard forward for the next 10 years. Along with her social work experience at Waterloo, she earned a Master of Social Work in Gerontology and is now a specialist in geriatric health services in Waterloo region. She methodically built up her entrepreneurial skills and savvy by taking business and accounting courses, volunteering and serving as president of the board of directors for the Toronto Council on Aging. 

Eventually, Churchyard felt she was ready to launch Green Care Farms. It took time to decide on a non-profit or social enterprise model — a business that does good in the world. She eventually chose the latter when she realized it would be easier to quickly offer the service to more people. 

With a client-staff ratio of three to one, she now has the capacity for 12 clients each Monday for five hours of digging, planting, weeding and harvesting and experiencing the world with all their senses. Participants take produce home while the extra goes to the local food bank. Meanwhile, catered lunch is served by The Lunch Box Café, a training café for adults with developmental disabilities. 

And it isn’t only the participants who benefit from the program. Caregivers do too. Churchyard remembered a care partner telling her the five hours of respite on Mondays was a lifesaver.  

“Hearing ‘this changed my life’ was honestly all I needed to keep going,” she said. “It was very healing. Obviously, the clients are not my grandparents, but this has been a way to pay tribute to them.”

Green Care Farms participants

Hear why Rebekah loves her work with Green Care Farms.