Help Mom Spend More Time with Mother Nature

Asian Grandmother and Eurasian granddaughter with park, water and mountains in background.

It’s a sad reality that some of the changes of aging make it harder to get out among trees, gardens, lakes and other natural surroundings. Seniors who enjoyed hiking, camping, golfing and walks in the park might find themselves spending more and more time indoors, sleeping, reading or watching TV.

It’s important to know that this nature deficit can be harmful for older adults. Scientific research continues to demonstrate the connection between spending time in nature and healthy aging. As our population ages and urban development continues, keeping our seniors connected with the natural environment is a growing public health challenge.

Why is this so important? Check out five recent studies that could provide motivation to get off the couch and into the park—and to help older loved ones do so as well! These scientists have found that spending time in nature is associated with…

Brain health. In April 2017, a study from the University of York in England showed that spending time in nature reduces harmful stress. The research team equipped a group of seniors with a wearable EEG device that measured their brain activity as they moved around the city. The brain scans showed that as the seniors entered parks and tree-planted areas, their brains became calmer and quieter. Said Dr. Chris Neale, “We found that older participants experienced beneficial effects of green space whilst walking between busy built urban environments and urban green space environments. Urban green space has a role to play in contributing to a supportive city environment for older people through mediating the stress induced by built-up settings.”

Exercise and socialization. In 2015, University of Minnesota researchers revealed that spending time in green spaces—and also in “blue spaces,” near oceans, rivers and ponds—has overall benefit for seniors. Said lead author Jessica Finlay, “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." Finlay’s team also noted that seniors who go outdoors tend to spend more time with young people. These intergenerational connections provide an important emotional boost for elders.

Longer life. In March 2017, Harvard Medical School researchers reported on a health study of 100,000 women, noting that those whose homes were surrounded by more green vegetation had a 13 percent lower rate of death during the years of the study. The reasons were many: As we saw in the University of Minnesota study above, people with access to nature go out more, get more exercise and spend more time with others. In addition, exposure to sunlight helps the body make vitamin D, which is so important for health. And wooded areas have a lower level of health-robbing pollution.

Better sleep. In 2015, University of Illinois researchers reported that “persons age 65 and older who have access to natural surroundings, whether it’s the green space of a nearby park or a sandy beach and an ocean view, report sleeping better.” Said study author Prof. Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, “It’s hard to overestimate the importance of high-quality sleep. Studies show that inadequate sleep is associated with declines in mental and physical health, reduced cognitive function, and increased obesity. This new study shows that exposure to a natural environment may help people get the sleep they need.” Added Toussaint, “If there is a way for persons over 65 to spend time in nature, it would improve the quality of their sleep—and their quality of life—if they did so.”

Decreased depression. For centuries, spending time in nature has been prescribed for emotional health. Have you heard of “forest bathing”? A practice that originated in Japan, this “eco-therapy” has many practitioners, who say sitting among trees improves the mood. And a 2014 University of Michigan study found that going for group walks in a natural setting could be an alternative to medications for older people who are dealing with painful life circumstances, such as loss of a loved one or serious illness.

Help your loved one get into nature

Shot of a young nurse pushing a senior man in a wheelchair around the garden

How can seniors with health challenges spend more time in woodland areas, parks and other locations that are rich with greenery? Families can make this a priority. Take your loved one on a day trip to the lake or an urban garden. Make a day of it with the grandkids, visiting the zoo or fishing. Even sitting by the fountain at a local park lowers stress. If your family uses professional in-home care, arrange for the caregiver to take your loved one on regular outdoor outings.

Feeling a little more ambitious? If your area is blessed with national or state parks, find out what facilities are accessible for people with mobility or visual impairments. Today, even many of our remote, rugged natural parks have nature trails with paved trails or boardwalks, which accommodate wheelchairs and walkers.

In town, check out outdoor programs for older adults through your local parks and recreation department or senior center. They most likely offer opportunities for people with physical or cognitive challenges.

And what about a garden? Family and professional caregivers can help your loved one grow veggies and flowers. Try raised bed gardens and containers, which are easier to reach. Sitting in the garden on a nice day, enjoying the fragrance of the flowers, the buzzing of bees and the warm sunshine certainly is a big improvement over watching a nature show on TV!

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2017.