Spend More Time in the Great Outdoors

As the weather is cooling down, we might be tempted to spend less time outside. But before you hunker down inside, check out these recent studies.

Young girl takes a photo of a family group outdoors, including an older woman

In June 2018, a research team headed by Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. compared the wellness of more than 290 million people, and found better health among those who lived near green spaces — which includes everything from fields in the countryside to urban parks and street plantings.

Twohig-Bennett said, "We found that spending time in, or living close to, natural green spaces is associated with diverse and significant health benefits. It reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth, and increases sleep duration." In addition, she reported, "People living closer to nature also had reduced diastolic blood pressure, heart rate and stress. In fact, one of the really interesting things we found is that exposure to green space significantly reduces people's levels of salivary cortisol — a physiological marker of stress."

What is behind all these benefits? Twohig-Bennett's team noted that going outdoors promotes exercise and socialization, both of which are important for good health. They also speculate that proximity to plants and trees exposes us to beneficial bacteria that could be good for our immune system and ward off inflammation — whereas some substances released by trees and plants could protect us from nonbeneficial bacteria.

Need more convincing? Another new study suggests that spending time in green spaces slows memory loss. In July 2018, researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health looked at the results of cognitive tests administered to 6,500 people over the course of 10 years. Using satellite imagery to estimate the amount of greenery in each participant's neighborhood, they determined that the seniors who lived in more natural spaces had experienced a slower decline in memory and thinking skills.

Nature energizes us and lifts our spirits. "Nature is fuel for the soul," said University of Rochester psychology professor Richard Ryan. "Often when we feel depleted, we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature."

Help senior loved ones get outdoors.

Do your older loved ones spend less time outdoors than they once did? Health problems might be a barrier, but you can help. It might be just a matter of coming up with an idea and an invitation. If your loved one has mobility challenges, vision loss or dementia, you'll want to do your homework ahead of time to ensure a successful outing. Here are 10 ideas:

1. Check out a national park. If your loved one is able to travel, spend a few days in one of our wonderful national parks! Seniors can get a reduced-fee lifetime pass. Up to three other passengers in the car can get in free with this pass — what a great deal, and seniors enjoy being able to treat the family with this perk. Once pretty much geared toward rugged outdoors people, the parks now also have a goal of providing accessible experiences for guests with disabilities. To learn more, visit your park's website and click "Accessibility" under the "Plan Your Visit" tab.

2. Plan a day trip. Even if a week in Yellowstone is not in the cards, your loved one's area may offer plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities. Check out parks, gardens and the local arboretum. What about the zoo? Animals are an inspiring part of nature, and zoos often feature lovely plantings and accessible paths. Many communities have "sensory gardens" where people with visual impairment can enjoy the sounds and scents of a natural environment.

3. Find green spaces in your loved one's neighborhood. The "great outdoors" can include small areas, such as playgrounds, landscaped public spaces and pocket parks. In July 2018, University of Pennsylvania experts noted that when even small vacant lots are cleaned up and planted with greenery, local residents feel less depression. So rather than sitting on the couch when you visit your loved one, why not take it outdoors?

4. Sit by the water. University of Minnesota researchers tell us that "blue spaces" — rivers, oceans, lakes and ponds — can be soothing and uplifting. Not near a beach or other natural body of water? Studies show that artificial water features, such as a splashing fountain or koi pond, also can lower stress and fight depression.

5. Hang out with the kids. Take your loved one and the grandchildren or neighbor kids to a playground or the zoo, or on a picnic or fishing trip. It's a great way for your loved one and the children to spend some quality time together. Going outside is good for people of every age!

6. Walk the dog. Owning a dog just naturally leads to spending more time outdoors! If it's appropriate, your loved one might enjoy adding a canine companion to their life. Or bring your own dog for visits that will surely include strolls outside. Or offer to walk a neighbor's dog, so long as it is well-behaved and won't jump on or trip your loved one.

7. Plant a garden. Plant veggies and flowers in your loved one's yard, or in yours if you're nearby. Raised beds and garden boxes are great for seniors who have trouble bending and kneeling. Or how about a container garden? Plant strawberries, tomatoes, herbs or flowers in attractive pots on the porch or balcony.

8. Buy your loved one some outdoor gear. Admit it — you consider style just as much as function when selecting a jacket or rain pants. Your loved one, too, might enjoy a new, fashionable workout outfit for a sidewalk stroll or just for looking good on the front porch. Choose garments that are easy to put on and take off for layering. And help your loved one purchase properly fitting shoes, to prevent blisters and falls.

9. Check out senior-focused outdoor programs. Senior centers, parks and recreation departments, and your local senior services agency most likely offer outdoor exercise or educational programs for older adults. Many communities offer activity programs for people with disabilities or dementia.

Caregiver and client sitting on the porch

10. Take home care out of the house. If your family uses in-home care to support the needs of an older relative, the caregiver probably provides personal care such as bathing, dressing and grooming; meal planning and preparation; housekeeping and laundry; and other services to keep your loved one safe at home. But home is only the beginning. The caregiver can provide transportation to outdoor recreation programs, or accompany your loved one to some of the great outdoor places listed above. Your loved one will have more confidence navigating outdoor spaces with the caregiver close at hand, offering an arm for support and a watchful eye, and assisting with your loved one's wheelchair or walker if needed. The caregiver also can ensure that your loved one is dressed for the weather. They might go for a stroll, walk the dog, work in the garden, or just spend some pleasant time on the porch together.

If your loved one has Alzheimer's disease or other memory loss, getting outside is especially beneficial. It improves sleep and lessens distress. If it's not safe for your loved one to be out alone, a professional caregiver trained in the needs of people with memory loss can accompany them on walks or a trip to the park. This provides great peace of mind for family, as well.

For information on topics related to home care and healthcare, visit our Home Care and Healthcare Advocacy group on LinkedIn.  

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.