Older adults need outdoor spaces: research

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Photo courtesy of the TKF Foundation.
Photo courtesy of the TKF Foundation.

New research touts the health benefits that older adults can realize from spending time outdoors at the same time that the authors of another study assert that neighborhood parks need to do more to attract those individuals.

“The Benefits of Nearby Nature in Cities for Older Adults,” a brief written by Kathleen Wolf, Ph.D., a research social scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, and Elizabeth Housley, founder, social scientist and senior project manager with the Seattle-based consulting firm Our Future Environment, provides a literature review of the health and wellness benefits of parks, gardens and trees when they are easily accessible and close to someone's residence. The information, the authors said, can be used by those planning assisted living and memory care communities as well as healthcare facilities and for “aging in place” design within communities and private residences.

Spending time outdoors can improve one's mind, body and spirit, reducing mobility issues, isolation, activities of daily living and physical therapy needs, depression and cognitive impairment, according to Wolf and Housley (pictured). “Nearby nature,” as they call it, benefits all ages, but the positive health effects often are greater for older adults, they said. New retirees can benefit from activities such as gardening and strolls, but adults aged more than 85 years may be limited to their immediate neighborhoods due to mobility or other health issues, so having nature nearby is even more important for them.

The authors noted one study that found that, overall, almost 40% of adults aged 60 to 64 years believed that their communities were not doing enough to plan for the growing population of older adults. Low-income older adults were even less convinced.

“This brief is a wake-up call for senior living specialists, city planners and health officials looking to address the needs of an aging population,” said Mary Wyatt, executive director of the nonprofit TKF Foundation, which funded the research as part of a series. “The evidence shows how important high-quality, well-designed nearby nature is for people of all ages.”

Older adults and existing parks

Meanwhile, a study by nonprofit research organization RAND Corp. has found that neighborhood parks across the United States see limited use by senior citizens and other adults because they offer activities that are geared primarily toward younger people.

“It's really sad that so few seniors are using our public parks,” said Deborah Cohen, M.D., M.P.H. (pictured), the study's lead author and a senior natural scientist at RAND. “We need to make changes to attract older people to parks to exercise and stay active, especially with the increasing rates of chronic disease among older people and as our nation's population grows older.”

The addition of walking loops and classes geared toward adults could attract many more older users to the parks, according to the study, published May 18 by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

RAND observers went to 174 neighborhood parks in 25 cities with 100,000 or more residents during the spring and summer of 2014 to document how people used the parks. Although they found much variation among the locations studied, results consistently showed that neighborhood park use was especially low among senior citizens, other adults and younger females. Adults aged 60 or more years make up 20% of the general population and yet were found to represent only 4% of observed park visitors.

Walking loops were found to generate the most physical activity for senior citizens and other adults. Gymnasiums, fitness zones and exercise areas generated the next highest amounts of moderate to vigorous physical activity for adults.

“Relatively modest investments could make parks much more conducive to physical activity for everyone, regardless of age, gender or income level,” Cohen said.

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