“In Sweden, we can make changes and it is of great importance that we do so because we can.”
– Christer Fällman
We often hear stories of people who go out of their way to make our world a better place, especially for those who are left out of the narrative. Christer Fällman is definitely one of these people. He is the Supervisor and Chief Therapeutic Gardener at Sweden’s first therapeutic garden within an elderly care environment – Sinnenas Trädgård (Garden of the Senses) – and also the founder of Europe’s first LGBTQ home for the elderly, Regnbågen (Rainbow House). His projects serve as inspiring models for international caregivers and public health organizations alike. In this profile, we provide insight into Fällman’s challenges of creating Regnbågen, his future projects and the advice he would give to those following similar journeys to realize their vision.
How does one build a community?
Regnbågen’s origins lie in Fällman’s own desire to find a place where he could imagine spending his final days. While Sweden has long ranked highly in both elderly care, and more recently, in LGBT rights, there wasn’t any institution which effectively combined the two before Regnbågen. It is important to understand that most of Regnbågen’s residents have lived through a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness in Sweden. Thus, living with non-LGBT elderly in care homes puts them at a greater risk of feeling the need to ‘closet’ their identities out of fear of stigmatization. But at Regnbågen the residents are able to find a community of like-minded individuals with space and freedom to celebrate who they are.
For Fällman, realizing his vision to create a place of trust and acceptance wasn’t easy. Through his time as the Supervisor and Head Gardener of Sinnenas Trädgård, he had the chance to bridge his love of gardening with his vision to bring joy to the elderly guests. From his personal experience which placed him and his loved ones in vulnerable situations, Fällman also realized that there was a definite need for improvement in Sweden’s elderly care system. Thus he knew he had to create a high-quality environment that is stimulating, engaging and meaningful. Hence, Regnbågen was born. Fällman reveals it wasn’t easy to find partners who were willing to be part of his innovative concept. After all, it had taken over 60 years since the decriminalization of same-sex relationships for an individual to even come up with the idea of a care home for the LGBT elderly. But with the help of organizations like Micasa Fastigheter and RFSL (Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Rights), Fällman was able to pursue his ambitions. Today, there is a waiting list of more than 180 people at this not-for-profit elderly home. Hopefully, with the support of Micasa Fastigheter, Fällman will be able to build more flats to accommodate this growing list of people. Upon asking what gives him the energy to persevere through the difficulties he says that it’s knowing that “there is so much left to be done.”
Deeply rooted in Swedish care philosophy
Fällman is skilled at starting new projects that gain momentum and attention. As part of the team that built Sweden’s first therapeutic garden for the elderly, Sinnenas Trädgård was constructed on the premise of stimulating the five senses – sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Together with occupational therapist Yvonne Westerberg, they created a place where the elderly are encouraged to go outdoors to interact, train or stimulate their memory in a dignified environment. This garden has received much interest from international scholars – as has Regnbågen. Fällman has received professional study visitors from Japan, Norway, Poland, and Russia to name a few – and he has even offered scholars the opportunity to stay in Regnbågen’s overnight guest accommodation so that they can socialize and interact with residents.
The engines haven’t stopped running yet
Fällman isn’t planning to stop his social endeavors anytime soon. He already has the gears running for his next project. He plans to combine the integration of newly arrived immigrants with active stimulation activities for the elderly through gardening. Gardening can be a very surreal experience for new immigrants as it gives them the chance to physically shape a foreign land with their own hands, thereby creating a sense of familiarity. In recent years, several researchers have studied the role of gardening in creating a sense of home for newly arrived immigrants especially in the US and Canada (Clayton, 2007; Francis, 1995; Gross & Lane, 2007; Cooper Marcus, 1992; Kiesling & Manning, 2010). These studies show how gardening can provide relief from everyday anxieties of moving to a new place, stress from poverty and unemployment, and even caregiving to facilitate overall well-being. Gardens have also been shown to be containers of the past, reflecting memory scapes of the past and childhood, and acting as active representations of self and identity. Further, as exemplified through Sinnenas Trädgård, gardens are a site of active engagement for the elderly and by the same reasoning, provide them with a chance to express themselves. Fällman hopes that his new gardening project will lead to better assimilation of the two, distinct social groups and ultimately integration into the larger society.
Fällman encourages caregivers and social advocates to turn their ground-breaking dreams into reality. When asked what advice he would give others embarking innovative projects, he recommends having “… patience… staying calm and remaining diplomatic […] balanced with stubbornness and a willingness to make the project come alive at any price.”