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  • Writer's pictureNancy Griffin

Access to Nature Essential for Senior Wellness

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

Peter James, Sc.D. at Harvard Medical School, considers experiences in nature as "a necessity that we need to maintain and sustain healthy lives."

Americans spend more than 90% of their time indoors, so intentional time spent in nature has become a necessity. The healing power of nature is real. This study from 2017 suggests links between a variety of health benefits, including reduced obesity and depression, better quality of sleep and increased social connectedness, and spending time in the out-of-doors.

Medical professionals are even prescribing nature as a cure for a variety of conditions. Yet access to nature senior living communities is often restricted due to many factors, including facility design, risk management, staffing shortages, and often, lack of priority.

Natural environments like adult playgrounds also enable older adults to uphold daily structure in retirement and provide opportunities for diverse activities outside the home. This is important to quality of later life by decreasing boredom, isolation, and loneliness; as well as boosting one’s sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Best-selling author Dan Buettner studied global centenarians in his book The Blue Zones and found that among the reasons these people were living so long was that their healthy lifestyles included maintaining gardens year-round and by walking more and taking mechanized transport less. Clearly, lifestyles that incorporate elements of nature are healthier and happier.

Research conducted by a University of Minnesota graduate student shows that green and “blue” spaces (environments with running or still water) are especially beneficial for healthy aging in seniors. Published in the journal Health and Place, the study – Therapeutic landscapes and wellbeing in later life: Impacts of blue and green spaces for older adults – demonstrates that by incorporating smaller features, such as a koi pond or a bench with a view of flowers, public health and urban development strategies can optimize nature as a health resource for older adults.

Throughout the research, green and blue spaces promoted feelings of renewal, restoration, and spiritual connectedness. They also provided places for multi-generational social interactions and engagement, including planned activities with friends and families, and impromptu gatherings with neighbors.

“A relatively mundane experience, such as hearing the sound of water or a bee buzzing among flowers, can have a tremendous impact on overall health,” says Jessica Finlay, a doctoral candidate in geography and gerontology at the University of Minnesota, where she continues to investigate influences of the built environment on health and well-being in later life. “Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out the door. This in turn motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation.”

Here are a few ideas to increase access to nature:

  • Recruit some fit residents to volunteer as guides for daily walking and weekly hiking excursions.

  • Expand the gardening program beyond the "green thumbs. Consider modifications to provide access for older adults with physical or cognitive disabilities.

  • The beauty of nature is it benefits everyone - consider intergenerational activities, from pickleball to nature walks, that mix and match the ages.

  • Move activities like art and music outside--everything is better with a little sunshine!

  • Make it social and fun!


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