• Wenona Kimbro

The Elder Playground: Infrastructure for Intergenerational Wellness

A Model for Inclusive Park Planning

While traveling in Spain, I came across some unfamiliar park equipment outside the Mercat Municipal del Cabanyal, a popular food market in Valencia. According to a local resident, this narrow area for rest and play is more of a street median than a park, and thus does not even have a name. However, even this humble strip of green space accommodates the local elders’ need for both community inclusion and outdoor exercise.

The wheeled structure on the left provides range-of-motion exercise for both shoulders, and accommodates a range of adult heights. Its vicinity to the simplified rowing machine on the right allows for multiple people to work out and socialize at the same time.

Underneath my delight over these discoveries, it troubled me that I had neither seen nor heard of elder park equipment before. Although the U.S. has been slow to incorporate elder-accessible equipment into public parks, I’ve since learned that elder playgrounds are commonplace in Spain. From large fitness circuits in sprawling urban parks to modest installations in tiny corners of rural towns, they are an essential part of countless neighborhoods.

As a person whose own fitness goals have sometimes been disrupted by disability, I couldn’t help wondering if I might be happier and healthier in a place with park policies that genuinely honor all ages and abilities.

U.S. Park Planning

When it comes to the use of public parks in the U.S., it seems logical that elders with plenty of free time would be frequent users of community green spaces. Sadly, this is not the case. Compared to park usage in countries that build elder-friendly spaces into their design, U.S. rates suggest a pervasive ageist bias in park planning.

As of 2019, the BBC reported a disparity of at least 35% between park usage by elders in China (the largest group at over 50%) and that of elders in the U.S (15% at best). As these figures suggest, genuine accessibility for an oft-marginalized group doesn’t just mean a lack of overt exclusion. It means being intentionally inclusive, by building accessibility into the overall design of systems and spaces.

International Trends

In addition to Spain, the elder wellness playground can be found in such places as China (often said to be its country of origin), as well as Japan, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Canada, India, and the UK.

This is not to say that the U.S. has permanently dropped the ball, just that we’ve come noticeably late to the party. While China has been building elder-focused spaces since 1995, they have only cropped up in U.S. cities over the past decade or so. Elder and multigenerational playgrounds have appeared in states such as Texas, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington. New sites are still emerging, and residents in a number of other U.S. locations are actively lobbying for elder playgrounds in their own communities.

According to the 2020 engagement report by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), 77% of survey respondents indicated that easy access to high-quality park or recreation amenities was an important factor in choosing the community where they would live. More specifically, this 2021 study of “older Americans” reported that participants were requesting “supportive senior-specific park infrastructure to encourage park usage and exercise.”

Opportunities for Senior Living Communities

Today’s evolving paradigm presents a unique set of opportunities for senior living communities. Offering local access to an elder-specific or age-inclusive playground could help satisfy the growing expectation for wellness community among potential residents. According to this report by Senior Housing News, “Today’s senior — and, crucially, tomorrow’s senior — wants an active lifestyle, a connection to the outside community and avenues to share their lifetime of experiences, skills, knowledge and wisdom.”

In terms of how these desires translate to industry trends and business opportunities, Senior Housing News points to the intergenerational housing model. While few residential communities will be truly intergenerational in the immediate future, a local all-ages playground could become an enduring bridge between any senior living community and the broader community around it.

The health benefits of elder-friendly playgrounds are supported by long-standing research and lauded by numerous experts, including industry leaders like Colin Milner of the International Council for Active Aging (ICAA). In addition to reducing loneliness and mitigating chronic health problems, configurations of elder-friendly exercise equipment are designed to increase balance and flexibility, and can help prevent falls.

Multiple Avenues of Access

For senior living communities yet to be built, including an on-site elder playground could be a means of attracting future residents, while at the same time creating infrastructure that prevents ill health and the resulting care costs. This AARP Parks Guide provides a step-by-step blueprint for creating new park spaces.

Another solution, for incorporating elder playgrounds into existing senior living communities, is to reclaim a small space within the campus where outdoor fitness equipment can be installed. The AARP Parks Guide also provides detailed information on how to either expand the function of existing recreational space, or repurpose space that may not seem suitable at first glance.

Although the initial investment in equipment may seem substantial, there could be a significant counterbalance in relief for over-extended program directors. While some outdoor fitness installations do involve regular group classes, they don’t necessarily require programming. These playgrounds are designed to facilitate independence and spontaneous social connection. Depending on each individual’s mobility and fitness levels, an initial walk-through or introductory lesson may be indicated, but regularly scheduled events are optional. For my part, in each elder playground I visited, I found that the equipment was designed to prevent injury and that the expected movements were usually self-evident.

For communities wishing to work with manufacturers directly, some companies specializing in elder playground equipment are the veteran Finnish company Lappset, NY-based company Play By Design, and Goric Marketing Group, based in Massachusetts.

For established communities that simply don’t have a space to repurpose, a nearby public park with elder exercise equipment could still be an enticing and health-protecting feature for prospective and current residents. Fortunately, the AARP’s guidance readily applies to public space as well. This article discusses the process followed by Southminster wellness community in Charlotte, NC. For many elder communities, it may be a worthy investment of time and energy to work with local park officials to repurpose a nearby public space—or, better yet—empower residents to advocate on their own behalf.

According to this article, one thing to keep in mind when lobbying U.S. park officials for change is that “playgrounds that cater to multiple generations are catching on more quickly than those designed exclusively for older adults.” Accordingly, a key talking point may be to emphasize the benefit to the broader community.

As shown in the above photo of the Jardí del Turia park in Valencia, equipment made for elders attracts a variety of ages and fitness levels. Below, Olympic trials qualifier Pablo Gomez works out at this same park, using a machine that encourages hip mobility and strengthened obliques.

While elders in memory care communities and those with greater mobility or health issues may find intergenerational spaces intimidating, many older adults will appreciate the opportunity to interact with all ages in an active wellness space. The article at the bottom of this page details how a wellness playground can be made accessible to all ages, even to elders in wheelchairs or with limited mobility.

Reclaiming the Joy of Play

In many locations worldwide, particularly China, elder playgrounds are often reserved for that population’s use. In other places, including Spain, elder playgrounds are understood as such, yet are often built with an intergenerational sensibility. Grandparents can play alongside their grandchildren and enjoy social connection with other adults at the same time. The video below discusses the range of community benefits possible in a single park.

Across multiple elder demographics, including both residents of senior living communities and those choosing to age in place, the overwhelming message is that staying active and having fun are important at every age. This first-person account by a journalist and elder in Minnesota provides some useful counterpoints to assumptions about what elders do and don’t want.

In her book Joyful, Ingrid Fetell Lee sums it up this way: “If we are at our most playful in childhood, the thinking goes, then an environment that transports us back there might stir joyful memories and reconnect us with our impulse to play.”

And as one park-enthused elder put it, “I don’t mind acting like a kid again.”

Wenona Kimbro is Associate Editor and Editor at Large at SeniorTrade. Based in Wyoming, she just returned from a summer traveling around Europe.

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