Supporting Elder Health in our Communities

In our Open Voices blog we share insight from leaders in our communities who are advancing what it means to have sacred, open green spaces in our cities. This month we examine the health needs of older Americans and the array of healthy experiences found in Nature Sacred spaces.

As the older U.S. adult population continues to increase and diversify, there is a need to provide various ways to understand and promote wellness. Eighty percent of our U.S. population live in cities and towns. As the population continues to concentrate in urban areas we must seriously consider the role of urban environments in our everyday health. For our older members of society, generally those 65 and older, the health benefits of urban green spaces can play a meaningful role in quality of life.

Never before have so many people lived for so long. Life expectancy has nearly doubled over the last century, and today there are 35 million Americans age 65 and older. The aging of the population—in past decades and in the foreseeable future—presents both a challenge and an opportunity.
— Director, National Institute on Aging

elder from ee paper

The aesthetic value of parks, trees, and open space has been widely praised for centuries. But since the 1970s, scientists of multiple disciplines are exploring a deeper level of impact by studying the contributions of nature experiences to human health, wellness, function, and therapy. Evidence suggests that the experiences of city trees, parks, and gardens can aid with attention restoration and stress reduction, contribute to positive emotions, and can promote social engagement and social support (among neighbors, friends, family, and members of local organizations). For older adults, opportunities for light exercise, social engagement, rest and mental restoration are key elements of an urban, healthy everyday life.

By 2030, older adults will account for roughly 20% of the U.S. population. This is double the population of older adults in the early 2000s (~35 million). As we live longer we will increasingly face chronic and degenerative diseases, many of which can be addressed by quality of life factors that encourage us to exercise our brains, bodies, and social skills. In a 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health indicators from various national sources provide a snapshot of older adult health and goals. The report shows most U.S. states are on track or ahead on targets such as leisure time, obesity, smoking, medication, mammograms and cancer screenings. But the report presents several calls to action intended to address gaps and encourage communities to take specific steps to improve the health and well-being of older adults. The report calls for improvements in mobility in our physical spaces, programs that encourage brain health, and avenues to decrease mental distress among older adults.

For older adults in their retirement years, quality of life plays a central role perhaps even more so than those of us in our working years. Spending time with family and friends, eating healthy and exercising regularly, and living in a community with accessible paths to parks and gardens are essential to maintaining everyday health and a positive mindset. Research suggests that older people benefit from engagement with outdoor environments in three main ways: participation in outdoor physical activity, exposure to outdoor natural elements, and social interaction with others in outdoor places.

We know physical activity and social interaction is important for elder health. But here are recent findings showing the positive mind-set and general well-being derived from simply being near a neighborhood park:

Thanksgiving Place 08
Thanksgiving Place Labyrinth on the grounds of a Baltimore low-income senior housing community.

• The designs of neighborhood environments facilitates older people’s outdoor activities and has a positive effect on their well-being. How one perceives their neighborhood environment (for example, they know there are places to sit outside) often means older people will venture outside more. But, also knowing there is a place to rest outside contributes to feeling more satisfied about life.

• The more green space in a neighborhood is associated with better health status of our elders. We all benefit from being outdoors, but the effect of green spaces on health is stronger for older people whose outdoor exposure is more likely to be limited to immediate neighborhood environments.

• Older people in economically deprived neighborhoods are more likely to experience difficulty negotiating access to and within green spaces. The quality of paths to open spaces is correlated with more walking behavior regardless of one’s age, physical ability, and education. For some, knowing there is a path from their home to a park contributes to a better mindset.

• In a small but in-depth study assessing well-being and sources of meaning among a racially diverse group of adults 70+, gardening was important because it connected participants to their past and future generations, was a source of memories and social events, and brought opportunities for spiritual healing and therapy.

• In sets of interviews with elderly apartment residents, satisfaction levels were significantly higher among residents whose apartments overlooked natural settings, and among those who lived closer to certain kinds of outdoor settings.

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White, M.P., I. Alcock, B.W. Wheeler, and M.H. Depledge. 2013. Would you be happier living in a greener urban area? A fixed-effects analysis of panel data. Psychological Science 24, 6: 920-28.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013. The State of Aging and Health in America 2013. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Sugiyama, T., and C.W. Thompson. 2008. Environmental support for outdoor activities and older people’s quality of life. Journal of Housing for the Elderly 19, 3-4: 167-185.

Tinsley, H.E.A., D.J. Tinsley, and C.E. Croskeys. 2002. Park usage, social milieu, and psychosocial benefits of park use reported by older urban park users from four ethnic groups. Leisure Sciences 24: 199-218.

Heliker, D., A. Chadwick, and T. OʼConnell. 2000. The meaning of gardening and the effects on perceived well being of a gardening project on diverse populations of elders. Activities, Adaptation and Aging 24, 3: 35-56.

Payne, L., B. Orsega-Smith, K. Roy, and G. Godbey. 2005. Local park use and personal health among older adults: An exploratory study. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration 23, 2: 1-20.

Talbot, J.F., and R. Kaplan. 1991. The benefits of nearby nature for elderly apartment residents. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 33, 2: 119-130.

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