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By Andrea Watts, SeniorHomes.com


“Breaking the stereotype” is how Jeff Getek, a public affairs manager for Erickson Living, describes his company’s philosophy that senior living communities don’t have to compromise between being stewards of the environment and providing their residents with an amenity-filled lifestyle. Their Oak Crest and Riderwood communities in Maryland showcase how senior living communities in urban settings can create the badly needed wildlife-friendly landscapes that not only benefit the local wildlife but also sparks other environmentally friendly initiatives the enhance their residents’ lives and reduce costs.

What Is Wildlife-Friendly?

People have misconceptions as to what wildlife-friendly means, says David Mizejewski, a spokesperson for the National Wildlife Federation. Wildlife-friendly habitat is not about attracting troublesome wildlife, such as raccoons and deer, or creating a wild landscape that is ugly looking, rather it’s about attracting birds and pollinators through a more natural landscape.

With senior living communities frequently having acreage devoted to landscaped grounds, a wooded area or flower beds in the courtyard, a few easy enhancements can make these green spaces provide the four elements of wildlife-friendly habitat: food, water, cover and nest sites for young. In urban areas where many senior living communities are located “that patch of green is even more important…little green oas[es] stand out, especially for migratory birds,” Mizejewski says.

With Riderwood the recipient of the 2003 Grand Award from the National Arborists Association in recognition of its efforts to protect over 80 trees during the community’s construction, the community already had the makings of a wildlife-friendly campus when the Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) reached out to the community to see if they were interested in a partnership. The WHC works with industry to create wildlife-friendly landscapes on their corporate grounds, and Thelma Redick, director of Conservation and Outreach, says they always want to adapt the model to other situations, and “we were very excited about the model and demographic [at Riderwood].”

Dan Dunne, director of communications for Erickson, was at Riderwood during this time and praises resident Ann Blackburn for taking the initiative to develop the partnership, create support among the residents and work with community leaders. There was already a Wildlife Habitat Steering Committee in place, which started as a result of the National Arborists Association’s award, Dunne says, but Blackburn and residents built upon this to create other clubs, including the weed warriors club, a nature club and a global warming club. Blackburn’s efforts were awarded with the 2005 Community Partner of the Year award from the WHC, and Riderwood also became Wildlife at Work certified in 2005. This was followed by receiving the WHC’s Corporate Lands for Learning site certificate in 2008, the only retirement community in the nation at the time to receive this certification.

At Oak Crest, it was the initiative of resident George Walter that the campus became certified as NWF wildlife-friendly habitat in 2010. Certification made sense because throughout our 87 acres are plentiful food sources and a pond serves as habitat for ducks and fish, Getek says. While there was already a recycling committee in place, Getek credits Walter for promoting the next step in awareness that more can be done to be good stewards of the environment. “Some people forget that this greatest generation [were] stewards of what they had at the time…and are more in tune [than younger people].”

Wildlife & Senior Living Residents 

For senior living communities interested in developing wildlife-friendly habitats in their community, both Dunne and Getek say that partnership between the residents and management is the key to creating success and that wildlife-friendly habitat initiatives should be tailored to fit the residents’ interests and physical abilities. “There are different ways to be stewards,” Getek says and Dunne adds that with communities located in different regions and offering unique programs and services, the initiatives should be tailored to meet the community’s needs.

Creating wildlife-friendly habitat can be as simple as a birdbath or a container garden on a deck Mizejewski says. At Oak Crest, additional habitat was created through a new memory garden where trees are planted in memory of residents who passed away. Redick suggests residents start small projects to build the momentum needed for large-scale projects. Both NWF and WHC provide resources for developing wildlife-friendly habitat, and Redick encourages communities to contact WHC early when starting a project so WHC can share expertise and create a model that is tailored to that community. To provide communities a model of the steps involved within creating wildlife-friendly habitat WHC created a guide that outlines the steps needed to achieve success (see below).

Apart from the intangible benefits that residents receive by observing nature—Who doesn’t like to look out at the garden and see wildlife, there’s a value in that, Mizejewski says—there are tangible benefits of wildlife-friendly habitat. “Good wildlife-friendly habitat is super low maintenance,” he adds, and with wildlife-friendly habitat feeding wildlife like Mother Nature, by providing food in the form of seeds, berries or foliage, native plants are an excellent sources of food. And since these plants are often ornamental shrubs, their addition to a landscape results in less lawn to maintain. Mizejewski adds that this habitat also provides benefits to the larger ecosystem beyond the community by protecting the watershed, providing clean air and reducing the urban heat island effect. These habitats also serve to “keep common species common,” Redick says, adding that common species, such as nuthatches, robins and bumblebees, should be found in everyone’s back yard.

Other Benefits of Wildlife-Friendly Areas

Interest in creating wildlife-friendly habitat can also spark interest in other environmentally friendly cost-saving measures that require resident support. At Oak Crest, Getek says that since their recycling program was fully implemented, they have cut their trash from 70 tons per month to 35 tons per month, resulting in a savings of approximately $3,500 per month. The dining service has moved to reusable mugs and canvas bags for dining carryout. These efforts were recognized in the community being awarded the 2011 Green Business of the Year by the Baltimore Business Journal, and Getek says that both residents and employees were on hand to receive the award, demonstrating that it requires a partnership for these initiatives to succeed.

Should communities want recognition for having wildlife-certified habitat, the NWF and WHC provide certification that is listed in online directories or can be demonstrated through signs. Though both organizations have an application process, the WHC’s application process requires a visit by a WHC biologist while the NWF’s process is on the honor system. Redick welcomes partnerships with other senior living providers because it is “a good chance for us to green up their campus and a great chance for [residents] to stay engaged with nature.” And for Getek, participating in the certification program demonstrates that senior providers can be good environmental stewards.

Ultimately, wildlife-friendly habitat also provides a better experience for residents, which Getek and Dunne witness at their communities. The natural scenery adds to the experience for our residents at Oak Crest, Getek says, and another advantage in senior living is residents having the time to “really stop and smell the roses.”

A helpful guide created by the Wildlife Habitat Council that outlines the steps to create wildlife-friendly habitat at your community.

Step

Example-
a pollinator garden at a senior living community

Assess organizational support

The program could
fit into the organization’s goals by being part of the existing
sustainability plan. Landscape maintenance staff that would be impacted by
the program are consulted.

Initial site assessment

Available space is
limited and there are a limited number of native flowers growing in the area.

Determine goals

The project should
be accessible to those in wheelchairs and be aesthetically pleasing to fit in
with the rest of the campus landscaping.

Create a team

Residents and
employees who are interested in wildlife and habitat are recruited as
volunteers through the community newsletter.

Select a project

A garden of native
wildflowers in raised beds will enhance habitat for pollinator species and
provide opportunities for residents to observe wildlife.

Make a plan

Resident and
employee volunteers sign up to help monitor and maintain the garden. A small
amount of the landscaping budget is allocated to the garden, and fundraisers
such as a calendar provide supplemental funds. Selected plants have a variety
of bloom dates and are obtained from a local native plant supplier.

Implement the project

After the
landscaping crew installs the raised beds, a planting event is held.
Residents and employees invite friends and family to participate and the group
works together on planting the garden, leaving markers noting the name of
each plant. An inventory of the initial plantings is created to use as a
monitoring tool in the future.

Conduct monitoring and maintenance

Residents and
employees monitor the garden regularly during the growing season to assess
plant health and determine which pollinators are benefiting from the garden.
Observations are recorded in a monitoring log, and pollinator guide books are
available to aid volunteers in identifying pollinators.

Obtain recognition

Residents and
employees prepare and submit an application to obtain recognition of habitat
enhancement efforts. Once certification is achieved, the marketing department
uses this as a tool to attract future residents.

Continue to maintain and improve the project

To ensure that the
garden continues to benefit wildlife, volunteers continue to maintain and
monitor its success. When problems are observed, such as some plants not
surviving well, the volunteers take steps to address the problems and improve
the success of the project.

Expand the program (optional)

After the garden is
successfully established, a number of residents express an interest in
installing birdhouses and initiate a second project.

 

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