Indoor thermal mineral ponds and a therapeutic massaging waterfall. Click on photo to read about Plants at Work.
As the leaves of tropical vegetation spread and you find yourself peering through a dense canopy of soaring trees, you conjure up the images of a rainforest deep in the Amazon. Suddenly, light breaks through a skylight six stories above the rainforest floor and you slowly realize that the entire experience is actually inside senior living community built within the world’s largest indoor rainforest. You are in Maravilla, a residential community designed to improve the health and lifestyle of seniors. Why a Maravilla?
As Dr. Tomer Anbar who conceived of the project explains, it is estimated that most people spend as much as 90 percent of their time indoors. In the case of seniors this is of particular concern when we consider that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies indicate indoor air pollution is two to five times greater, and in some cases up to 100 times greater than outdoor levels. Furthermore, such studies show that people who may be exposed to indoor air pollutants for the longest periods of time are often those most susceptible to the effects of indoor air pollution, including the elderly and the chronically ill, especially those suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular disease.
The immediate effects of indoor air pollution may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Symptoms of some diseases, including asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever, may also show up soon after exposure to some indoor air pollutants. Other health effects may show up either years after exposure has occurred or only after long or repeated periods of exposure. These effects, which include some respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer, can be severely debilitating or fatal (EPA 06/01).
Sources of Indoor Air Pollution
There are many sources of indoor air pollution. These include combustion sources such as oil, gas, kerosene, coal, wood, and tobacco products; building materials and furnishings as diverse as deteriorated, asbestos-containing insulation, wet or damp carpet, and cabinetry or furniture made of certain pressed wood products; products for household cleaning and maintenance, personal care, or hobbies; central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices.
Why a Rainforest? The research Dr. Anbar had been conducting in designing environments that address mind-body interconnnections, and the hazardous neurological effects of indoor air pollution led to the development in 1979 of Yalentay, a residential institute for the elderly, specializing in psychoneurological and related disorders. The facility was nestled in a sub-tropical environment designed to improve air quality, particularly with respect to heavy metals, and improve the health of residents. The study was conducted in conjunction with the National Institute of Neurology, a research component of the World Health Organization in Mexico City. The results in the improvement of the health of seniors were dramatic, and received international attention. According to Anbar, in the early 80’s NASA scientists demonstrated a similar relationship using tropical rainforest foliage to purify the air. What these researchers found was that certain types of foliage can remove toxins such as benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde from sealed chambers. Today, the senior living community of the Maravilla rainforest represents the largest application of this research to date.
Connection Between Plants, Pure Air Established in NASA study
Anbar further points out that the NASA findings in 1984 formed the basis of an even more extensive test, which involved the construction of a sealed structure called “the Biohome”. In the test, subjects entering the Biohome reported all the classic symptoms of “sick building syndrome”: burning eyes and throat and respiratory discomfort. When specific tropical foliage was introduced into the environment, the symptoms ceased.
Similar tests in other settings found that levels of airborne mold spores, bacteria and other contaminants, which can initiate asthma episodes for example, are also lower than in rooms which did not have these specific tropical plants.
Research shows us that the indoor plants – most of which are originated in tropical rainforests – are able to remove indoor air pollutants because of microbes they create around their root systems. In the wild, these microbes rapidly biodegrade and mineralize leaves and other debris to provide nutrients. Because the structure of many harmful indoor chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and xylene have structures similar to these natural materials, the microbes continue to function indoors as they do outdoors.
Furthermore, tropical plants have genetic codes that cause them to produce as yet unidentified substances to protect themselves from airborne molds and mildew. Supported by special design elements such as ventilation and filtering, such live plants can serve as an effective component of a structure’s indoor air-quality management system.
A Six-Story Rainforest
To recreate the natural benefits of a rainforest environment and ideal climate, Anbar designed a six-story glass-topped rainforest and tropical park complete featuring soaring trees, plants and fragrant flowers, in an interior landscape of natural and organic vegetation, aquatic gardens and therapeutic waterfalls.Apartment balconies open onto a setting that actually enhances health, wellness and longevity.
Impacting the Health of Residents and Staff
When Katherine Sandow R.N., a registered nurse from the nearby medical center began working at the residential rainforest in late August, she looked forward to assisting residents with their healthcare needs. Little did the long time allergy sufferer know that within a few months on the job, she would experience a significant improvement in her own chronic condition.
“I was very dependent on antihistamines to control my allergies when I first accepted the position. Since working here, my need for medication has decreased sharply. I was amazed.” She similarly describes the improving health of many of her patients who were among Maravilla’s first residents a year ago. “Another example is an asthma patient who is using her medication much less since she moved here,” explains Sandow.
Asthma Patient Breathes Easier in Maravilla Rainforest
When chronic asthma patient Marguerite Van Order moved from her Brookfield, Wisconsin home to Maravilla, she never dreamed life in a retirement community situated within an indoor rainforest would lead to such significant improvement in her health and well-being.
“I was diagnosed with asthma 15 years ago and have needed an inhaler on a daily basis since that time. I wasn’t aware of the change at first, but I’m breathing easier, using my inhaler less during the day.”
“By the time I walked through the rainforest two or three times, I realized the effect this climate was having on my health,” beamed Van Order. “The atmosphere is so peaceful, and it’s such a wonderful feeling just walking out of my front door each day, into such a beautiful place.”
Just What the Doctor Ordered
“Many of Maravilla’s residents notice a rapid decrease in respiratory problems, as well as an improvement in sinus conditions, post-nasal drip and dry eye in their new environment. Furthermore, the consistent year-round humidity level and fresh air is healthy for the skin, preventing dryness,” according to Dr. Robert Guziec, a recently retired ear, nose and throat specialist and facial plastic surgeon, who not only speaks from his professional experience, but also from the personal experience of seeing his mother’s progress as a resident.
Dr. Guziec knew that his 83-year-old mother should no longer be living alone in her southwest side home, and began researching retirement and assisted living communities along the NorthShore.
The first time he visited Maravilla, he marveled at the holistic environment, and indoor rainforest, and was convinced this community offered his mother opportunities for a healthier, more active life. He also sensed a sincere interest on the part of management in not only providing comfortable accommodations, but a truly holistic approach to overall physical and emotional health and contentment.
“There is a higher oxygen saturation due to the unique tropical plants which are a hallmark of the rainforest, and this is extremely beneficial for the respiratory system, and in turn the whole body and mind,” Dr. Guziec explains.
Paving the Way to Senior Health and Longevity
“What we have done at Maravilla, is to continue implementing the latest findings relating to environment and healthcare.Studies that we have undertaken since 1979 regarding the health benefits of tropical surroundings, healthful diet, psychosocial interaction, exercise, stress reduction, preventive medicine, spirituality and their impact on physical and emotional well-being, have profound influences on longevity.Based on the most advanced research to date, we know that the milieu we are providing will truly ease or even reverse some of the unnecessary effects of aging.In essence, the environment we’re creating indoors isn’t just about comfort…it’s about healing,” says Dr. Tomer Anbar, who developed the mind/body medical programs for the resident population.
“Living indoors as much as we do cuts us off from the benefits of natural air and moisture,” Anbar explains.“This can have serious health consequences, especially for older adults, ranging from respiratory problems to dehydration and depression.”
“Lately, we’ve heard a lot of reports about so-called ‘sick buildings’ – structures built without access to fresh air and natural light, that are so climate-controlled they’re actually making people ill.”
In addition to ideal year-round climate, Maravilla features a therapeutic health spa and behavioral medicine programs designed to specifically address the health issues of seniors.These include special programs for fitness, wellness and longevity. Healthful, natural cuisine with a gourmet flair, served in various community dining areas; an indoor garden café, a gazebo over-looking the water, on private balconies and an expansive outside terrace.Additionally, there is a wealth of cultural, educational and entertainment venues.
“The three greatest challenges seniors face are health issues, a lack of engaging, purposeful activity- a sense of hope, and increasing isolation,” Anbar notes.“Just moving to Florida won’t address them – but the setting, amenities and services in a therapeutically engineered environment can.It’s not just a different place to live, but a whole new way of life … that’s healthier and more fulfilling.”
Designing a Suburban Rainforest for Senior Living The rainforest’s design goes far beyond plant choice, and incorporates areas that provide residents with spaces for many different activities, such as lectures and entertainment in a tree-lined amphitheater nestled within the lush foliage.
Looking up from any of the vistas, color reaches upward, as the design team installed flowers, plants and vines in the 224 balcony planters of cascading blue trumpet vines and pink jasmine. “Blooms help reinforce the feeling of authenticity, since buds can be seen in rainforest treetops.” As you look up, all you see around you are magnificent balconies covered in thriving plants, flowers and vines.
In order to create an environment that would also soothe and invigorate residents, Anbar and his colleagues sought to avoid overwhelming them with only unfamiliar exotics. Thus, we incorporated tropicals that would also be somewhat familiar, but integrate into the Maravilla’s biosphere.
As you move through the rainforest, walking paths circle and cut across the entire site for easy access to and from strategic areas for exercising, swimming, lounging, dining or entertaining. Benches designed to promote psychosocial interconnectiveness along these routes encourage residents to indulge in activities of a personal nature, such as reading or contemplation.
Numerous heights of foliage and trees shields certain areas from full or partial view, while several varieties of palms create the perimeter of activity areas. Tunnels and walls made out of live foliage also block various sight lines, creating many areas having distinct identities.
Fruit-producing trees such as yellow strawberry guava, banana and coconut add a feeling of vibrant health and beauty surrounding the café.
As residents, friends and family meander through the paths of dense tropical growth, they come upon a sitting area facing a warm waterfall designed to sooth aches and pains.
Numerous textures of the plants in this area were selected to cause an onlooker’s eyes to move up and down through space, following the movement of the waterfall.
As design team explains, “the greens play against each other. Starting at the top of the waterfall, a visitor’s eyes are drawn to the shiny, dark leave of a Bucida buceras leaning over a pond. The feathery Cyathea dealbata leads the eyes downward to rest upon the glossy Anthurium scherzeranum across the glistening water.
“Residents can feel young again in the next area, which plays host to a thermal mineral pond nestled among the rock and foliage providing yet another private space. “The choice and placement of plants reinforces in residents the feeling that they have found perhaps not the legendary fountain of youth, but something akin to it,” explains another member of the design team. “Vines such as Tetrastigma voinierianum and Bougainvillea glabra, which hang from rock piles near the thermal pools, convey the feeling of permanence. Living bamboo reinforces the effect, as it grows on the rocks. The 40-foot-tall Veitchia merrillii strengthens the impression of timeliness, by poking through a hole in the lattice top of the cabana, as though the tree has been there forever.
Thick foliage hangs over the perimeter of the deck. “Residents in their 70s, 80s and 90s, don’t want to be watched by six stories of people.” This seclusion encourages residents to seek a gentle massage from the 93 degree waterfall flowing into a warm pool, or to relax in the thermal waters of a mineral bath nestled in rock and thick foliage.
Moving further into the rainforest, residents encounter a symphony of colors in the meditation garden. The blooms of tricolor bromeliad and Passiflora vitifolia add color variation into the rainforest.
Group activity areas for discussions, lectures, yoga and tai-chi with their promise of absolute privacy are formed, as palms and a bamboo wall surrounding the area help keep sound from carrying. But unlike in the swimming areas, bird-of-paradise trees and bleeding-heart vines lend it the graceful appearance appropriate for contemplation.
Because some residents use canes or walkers, non-stick adhesive is integrated into the material features of terracotta hue, the color of the ground in the rain forest.
Rock formations behind the cabana and rock piles near the water features, resemble the dried lava spewed by volcanoes in the rainforest environments.
This is the setting that Dr. Anbar and his team of horticulturalists, landscape architects, operations and management personal, group therapists, environmental researchers, psychoanalysts, health psychologists medical personnel and researchers set out to create. An environment designed to improve the health of residents, and house cutting-edge programs of mind/body wellness and longevity.
Biopsychosocial-Environmental Approach to Senior Housing and Care Maravilla is the product of 50 years of research and development in creating therapeutic environments for specialized populations ranging from children through Seniors pioneered by Dr. Abraham Anbar senior. After opening his first therapeutic residential communities in the mid-1950’s, and subsequent development of specialized assisted living facilities in the 1960’s, it became increasingly evident that it was necessary to extend the therapeutic paradigm to the physical environment, diet, physical fitness, and the spiritual and interpersonal relationships of the residents and staff. This biopsychosocial-environmental model evolved to shape many aspects of the subsequent developments in healthcare housing and philosophy.
The Biopsychosocial/Multidisciplinary Approach to Healthy Aging
As so many adverse health conditions associated with aging are lifestyle related, the behavioral medicine programs implemented at Maravilla are particularly helpful as they can effectively prevent many illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease by helping individuals change adverse lifestyle behaviors. For those who go through these non-pharmacological non-surgical programs, the results are quite startling:
For seniors and family caregivers, behavioral medicine programs deliver a solution to chronic conditions, which traditionally have been severely under- and inadequately addressed, and are particularly effective in treating elderly patients, significantly reducing muscle and joint pain, fatigue, lowering blood pressure and decreasing medications. Other programs address insomnia, cognitive decline, including memory loss, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, chronic pain disorders, depression, anxiety, diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Environmental Protection Agency and American Nurseryman for the right to use material in the preparation of this article.