Elizabeth Newman

Some of my family and friends — and coworkers — are the type of people who embrace the great outdoors. They hike the Appalachian Trail or lead Boy Scouts through rough terrain, or spend the day birding or on the back of a horse.

I want to be one of these people. Every time I set foot in REI, generally to buy a pair of warm socks, I keep talking about how much fun it would be to go camping. However, I’m delusional. I’m allergic to bees. I hate being cold. I biked around Denver before LeadingAge a few years ago and got sick from the altitude. I once participated in an urban garbage clean-up — literally in an alley in Baltimore — and managed to become covered in poison ivy to the point I had to take Prednisone for weeks.

But a new study confirms what I have suspected in my gut — nature is good for you. Older adults who have “blue” (i.e. waterfront areas) and “green” (i.e. parks and gardens) spaces have better feelings of renewal, restoration and spiritual connectedness, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota, and in Vancouver. They were looking at how features such being by a lake or near a bench with a view of flowers can impact older adults.

“We zoomed into everyday life for seniors between the ages of 65 and 86. We discovered how 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, the study’s lead author, who is also a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota.

The accessibility of green and blue spaces provokes seniors into going outside, which can help them become more active, she said. Many study participants had chronic health conditions and improved their overall well being by going outside. Blue space, that is waterfront areas, were especially helpful in that they encouraged the seniors to wade, walk in water or swim. Many found it relaxing.

Before you roll your eyes at a study that tells you what you may intuitively know, Findlay notes it is this type of research that can push planners and builders into developing different types of communities.

“We don’t just need a playground for children. We also need more sheltered benches for the grandparents to watch them,” Finlay says.

As more senior communities are renovated or expanded, adding a koi pond or path to a river may not be feasible. But I do think it’s worthwhile to take a step back and ask what you can add to help seniors connect with nature. Even urban facilities can conceivably add a water feature that attracts birds, or a larger windowsill that can hold potted plants. In the suburbs, think about whether there’s a way to arrange an activity for residents that involves a park, playground or gardens. More communities are letting seniors move in with their pets, so it’s worth looking at ways residents can walk with their dogs (and clean up after them).

Outdoor spaces can take time to plan and maintenance, and may seem like an added frill in long-term care. But I suspect Finlay’s research will be part of a trend showing it’s a necessity.

Elizabeth Newman is Senior Editor at McKnight’s. Follow her @TigerELN.