We know that spending time in nature helps to reduce depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and keep us fit and active. For older adults, there are additional benefits as well. According to the Elder Care Alliance, getting outside regularly can help seniors to recover more quickly from surgery or illness, and retain better memory. The vitamin D from sunlight helps our bones to absorb calcium, which protects against osteoporosis in older age, and can also lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Unfortunately, mobility issues, lack of transportation, fear of falling, and other concerns keep many older adults indoors, away from Minnesota’s woods and water. Several years ago, while Randy Thoreson was working for the National Park Service, he began talking with the Division Chief for Conservation and Outdoor Recreation. “I enjoy doing all of this work with youth,” said Thoreson, “but I think we’re missing a sector of the population. The outdoors isn’t just for kids, you know.”
Soon, Thoreson found himself traveling around the country, giving presentations at AARP conferences, Rotary, Lions, and Kiwanis Clubs, and National Park Service meetings, where he advocated for new programs to help get seniors outdoors in nature. He points to Wilderness Inquiry as an example of an organization that plans inclusive outdoor adventures for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Thoreson would like to see National Park Service and other conservation organizations plan similar programs that cater specifically to seniors.
In addition to bringing seniors out to parks and natural areas, Thoreson says it’s equally important to bring nature into the places where we live. “Ask your community leaders what they are providing in town for residents,” he advises. Outdoor recreation is booming during COVID times, and people of all ages are looking for local parks and trails that they can easily access without having to drive. Likewise, Thoreson notes that developers building new senior living complexes should consider site design and think about ways to create outdoor experiences for residents with trails, gardens, and sitting areas.
Research from the University of Minnesota backs Thoreson’s advice. In particular, researchers find that “green and blue” spaces (environments with running or still water) are especially beneficial for healthy aging in seniors. “While our research may seem intuitive, it creates conversations on how to build communities that serve people across their entire lifetime,” says Jessica Finlay, one of the researchers involved in the project. “We don’t just need playgrounds for children, we also need sheltered benches for grandparents to watch them.”
In terms of health benefits, it is most important to get outside regularly, even if you don’t travel very far. AgingCare, an organization that connects families with home care, assisted living, and caregiver support, offers advice to help seniors with mobility concerns to get fresh air and sunshine more regularly. Suggestions include spending time every day sitting outside on a patio or porch (if possible) or near an open window (if not). Try mounting a bird feeder near the window or back door where it is easy to see and access; plant a garden with native plants alongside a patio or deck to attract birds and butterflies; or grow native plants in containers or window boxes if a garden isn’t possible. For container gardens, Minnesota Extension recommends columbine, aster, black-eyed Susans, Jacob’s ladder, wild geranium, purple coneflower, and coreopsis as native options that will bloom throughout the season and do well in a pot or window box.
Looking at long-term trends for Minnesota, demographers expect seniors to comprise a larger percentage of the population in coming years. Currently, 15% of Minnesotans are over 65, but that number will grow to more than 20% by the year 2030. In fact, Randy Thoreson notes that he himself has recently retired and is considered a senior. “Now that I’m retired, I guess I have skin in the game,” he laughs, “but I’ve cared about this topic since before it affected me.”
Retirement hasn’t stopped Thoreson from his advocacy either. In fact, he’s already planning to speak to a group in Arizona when he heads south for the winter. “I don’t do this to get rich, you know. I just really want to see more people of all ages get outside to experience the benefits of nature. It’s body, mind and soul.”