How everyday access to nature can add life to your later years
Can access to nature affect the health and well-being of older adults? Results from a recent study on therapeutic landscapes and well-being in later life highlight the importance of everyday contact with nature for well-being in later life.
Natural environments are known to promote physical, mental, and spiritual healing. People can attain health benefits by spending time outside, often in remote places to ‘get away from it all’.
How do we define nature?
Nature often refers to untouched forests and lakes in the wilderness; but it can also refer to potted plants in a home, trees along a street, and a courtyard fountain. Our study investigates how two specific elements of nature impact the physical, mental, and social well-being of older adults: green space and blue space.
- Green space: A common term used to describe natural areas in wilderness and urban settings. Examples: parks, gardens, forests
- Blue Space: Aquatic environments in natural and urban areas with standing or running water. Examples: oceans, lakes, rivers, fountains, streams
Our global population will soon be comprised of a high proportion of older people. This changing demographic challenges us to consider the kinds of environments that promote healthy aging. Access to nature is one key component of well-being, and green and blue spaces can provide older people with opportunities to enhance physical health, mental well-being, social connections, and enhanced quality of life. To date, we know relatively little about the associations between access to nature and quality of life. Our study begins to address the gap by focusing specifically on everyday experiences of adults aged 65 and older.
Importance of everyday contact with nature
While younger generations may use green and blue spaces more to escape and rejuvenate from their busy work life, our participants used nature to be active physically, spiritually, and socially in later life. Many overcame barriers due to chronic illness, disability, and progressing old age to connect regularly with green and blue spaces.
Natural environments 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. Blue space in particular provides opportunities for non-weight bearing physical activity and physiotherapy (e.g. wading, water walking, swimming). Waterfront areas are comforting sites for spiritual connectedness with deceased loved ones, and relaxing places to escape the strains of later life. In summary, accessible and safe green and blue spaces provide meaningful opportunities for overall well-being in later life.
Who we studied
- Older adults aged 65–86 years
- Participants lived across Metro Vancouver, BC, Canada
- All low-income (received rental assistance from the provincial government)
- Included 8 different self-identified racial and ethnic groups
- Included varied chronic conditions and experiences of health
How we learned from our study participants
We conducted sit-down interviews where we asked participants about their health, physical activity, mobility levels, travel behaviours, and their local neighborhood environment
We also conducted walking interviews where participants chose a familiar route around the neighborhood to walk and talk with members of our research team.
Summary of effects of green and blue spaces on the well-being of older adults
- Motivated to be physically active outside for both recreation and purposeful exercise
- Sense of improved physical health (e.g. muscle strength, joint movement, physical functioning)
- Provided destinations to ‘get out the door’ (important for building and maintaining a fulfilling daily routine in retirement)
- Popular combined green and blue destinations (e.g. forested park along a river, lake, or ocean)
- Sense of improved psychological health (e.g. appreciation of stillness, spiritual connectedness, and peacefulness)
- Feelings of renewal, restoration, and rejuvenation
- Blue spaces in particular are relaxing and stress reducing places to escape the strains of later life (e.g. medical issues, fatigue from everyday tasks, financial hardship, family burdens)
- Blue spaces contribute to sense of spiritual connectedness with deceased loved ones
- Essential for social interactions (e.g. planned with family and friends, unplanned with neighbours)
- Pleasant experiences in nature can reduce fears of isolation
- Multi-generational enjoyment, particularly in green spaces (e.g. public parks with paths, fields and playground structures)
Next Steps: Making Nature an Accessible Health Resource for Aging Residents
Public health and urban development strategies have yet to conceive of ways that optimize nature as a health resource for older adults. Day-to-day urban life can be distant from natural settings, and this study demonstrates that interventions do not need to be large-scale urban overhaul: installing smaller features, such as a small garden plot or courtyard fountain, can also positively influence older adults’ quality of life. Mixed green and blue spaces can have many therapeutic qualities, while green and blue spaces separately have distinct influences on older adults. Our findings suggest that blue space should feature more prominently in health policy and urban planning discourses regarding older adults.
Armed with a better understanding of factors in the local environment that nurture and support healthy aging, local governments are positioned to make infrastructure changes that promote older adult mobility and health. Public policy that prioritizes creating and maintaining blue and green spaces serve to facilitate everyday access to these nurturing spaces. Finally, should decision makers choose to preserve and construct green and blue spaces that contribute to the health of older adults, they also support the health of people across all ages.
The authors of this study gratefully acknowledge the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for funding this research.