The Elderly in Nature

The discipline of occupational therapy focuses on teaching people with physical limitations how to complete everyday tasks. Some common goals of occupational therapists include helping children with disabilities function in school and social environments, helping injured individuals regain their mobility, and helping elderly adults with physical and cognitive limitations to get through their day to day lives (American Occupational Therapy Association 2018).

Although the following article focuses on elderly populations, it is important to know that in the past, the most popular demographic associated with occupational therapy has been youths with disabilities. Child patients usually exercise in confined environments that often fail to stimulate their senses and make them emotionally uncomfortable. This inspired pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom to create a positive change to the field of occupational therapy. In 2010, she established TimberNook, a comprehensive nature-based development program for children with special needs, which is now active in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Hanscom says that her program works well because nature is “the ultimate sensory experience for all children and a necessary form of prevention for sensory dysfunction” (Hanscom 2014).

old-men-exercise

In general, aging can cause cognitive and motors functions to decline, leading to many elderly adults losing their independent living situation.

With this in mind, occupational therapists are not only widening their range of treatment options, but also their range of clientele. Life expectancy is increasing, especially in the United States, which has the highest life expectancy for people over the age of 75. This leaves occupational therapists with a new group to focus on: the elderly. This begs the question: what can time spent in nature, during both therapy and recreation, offer the elderly for their physical and mental health?

When children experience motor complications, they may seem frustrated, high energy, and anxious. With the elderly, it is often the opposite. Physical limitations may result in fatigue, depression, and being lethargic. Many of the limitations of traditional indoor therapy leave a person feeling disconnected. Outdoor Kids Occupational Therapy, another occupational therapy program that integrates nature with treatment, argues that there are three main things that patients in traditional therapy need that they may not be getting. One is the ability to connect with family and friends, not just the therapist. The second is transformation through therapy. Therapy through nature is shown to lead to breakthroughs in family relationships and mental health. The final one is the great outdoors themselves. People, especially children, should have time to spend in nature. The rule extends to the elderly, as they are also in a time of their life characterized by motor difficulty, sensory limitation, and a dependency on others. Parents of children in that have gone through outdoor occupational therapy confirm that their children are able to move more freely, are more coordinated, and above all, more social and more confident (Outdoor Kids N.D.).

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It would be unreasonable to expect elderly adults to be using a playground like children, just as it would be to expect them to do vigorous exercise like younger adults. A new phenomenon has emerged, starting in South Korea and rapidly spreading to countries like the United States: therapeutic gardening.

In general, aging can cause cognitive and motors functions to decline, leading to many elderly adults losing their independent living situation. Therapeutic gardening involves the integration of gardening activities into the daily routines of patients.

Gardener watering plants

Horticulture therapy now has a presence in many assisted living homes and dementia residences. One way this activity can benefit patients is by allowing them their autonomy. Patients are given the freedom to explore through touch. The exposure to nature also provides patients with great sensory stimulation, and has led to reduced pain, less stress, and improved sleep cycles. Dementia patients are seen falling less and becoming less agitated. Additionally, therapeutic gardening is low budget and non-pharmacological (Detweiler 2012).

The fusion of horticulture into medicinal fields such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychology has created a positive change in how we view medicine and therapy. The focus has shifted from searching for fast-acting cures to the recreation and stability associated with being in nature.

Smiling old man

For further reading:

  • “About Occupational Therapy.” Aota.org, 2018, http://www.aota.org/About-Occupational-Therapy.aspx.
  • “Outdoor Kids Occupational Therapy.” Outdoor Kids Occupational Therapy, http://www.outdoorkidsot.com/.
  • Detweiler et al (2012). What Is the Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly? Psychiatry Investigation. 9, 100-110.
  • Hanscom, Angela. “Nature is the Ultimate Sensory Experience: A Pediatric Occupational Therapist Makes the Case for Nature Therapy.” Children & Nature Network, 12 May 2014.

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The National Parks are Great, So Why Doesn’t Everyone Go There?

There is a high chance you’ve heard of or visited places like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. These are all national parks within the United States and are seen as natural gems by millions of people. The ability to visit and explore stunning natural landscapes that our earth has created has helped define the United States, as it has created symbolic images that are known across the globe. Fifty-nine national parks span from coast to coast, and according to the National Park website, these parks attract millions of visitors annually as they are a great way for people to explore the outdoors.

Yellowstone
Yellowstone National Park

People visit national parks in order to explore nature and to “get away from it all”. Many people go with their friends and families to participate in activities such as hiking, swimming, camping, wildlife viewing, and backpacking. While you might go with the intention of engaging in various activities, the one thing that is bound to happen is that you will leave feeling inspired and refreshed. An article by Florence Williams published in Outside Magazine discusses how being in nature has been proven to refresh your memory capacity and relieve mental fatigue because your brain is not focused on the stressful tasks that occur in daily. Nature then helps foster introspection, which in turn allows for you to think deeply about your own life, who you are, and what your goals and dreams may be.

            Despite all these benefits, not everyone goes to national parks.  In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Park Service (NPS), only 22% of national park visitors in 2013 were minorities, despite making up 37% of the population (Nelson, 2015).

Despite all these benefits, not everyone goes to national parks.  In fact, according to a survey conducted by the National Park Service (NPS), only 22% of national park visitors in 2013 were minorities, despite making up 37% of the population (Nelson, 2015). This indicates that there is a significant race disparity between national park visitors.

The main visitors of national parks appear to be older, white people. Studies have suggested that this population has a greater financial ability to visit national parks in the regular because the majority of them have at least a graduate degree and therefore make over 100k+ annually (Kearney, 2013). Although it may not seem expensive at first glance, there are significant costs associated with taking such leisurely trips to different parts of the country. Many national parks are isolated, so at least a sturdy car and money for gas is required to get there. Flying to these destinations is even more costly. If you are camping, you need a tent, sleeping bag, food, and various other camping and safety gear that is required based on the location. There are also entrance fees to these parks, which are usually per car instead of per person. Plus, employed people would need to acquire time off of work to be able to go on trips and lower-paying jobs usually do not offer many vacation days.

Arches National Park Photo by National Park Service
Arches National Park Photo ©National Park Service

However, this gap in economic resources is not the only reason for the lack of minority visitors at national parks in the U.S. Many minorities who were interviewed about this topic in Washington, D.C. stated that they had less of a drive to visit these places due to a general undesirability of the outdoors, a perception that such places are unsafe, or feeling unwelcome. Most people dislike being around bugs and mosquitos and many people fear bear attacks, so the concept of being in the “Great Outdoors” is overall unappealing to minorities (Kearney, 2013).

Cultural differences play a role in this divide because not everyone is crazy about nature. One’s own individual values, rural or urban upbringing, and their perception of what nature is to them are all factors that must be considered. Religious differences can also be reason that people are not interested in becoming involved in nature (Schultz et al., 2000). The functional view of nature between cultural groups can also vary, but overall nature can be used to answer human needs, but there is a requirement for respect and responsibility towards nature (Bujis et al., 2009).

Wyoming
Grand Teton National Park

This race disparity problem needs our attention because it is important for everyone, regardless of their race or ethnicity, to get outside. Dr. Ming Kuo, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, studies the effects of nature on people. Dr. Kuo claims that the mental and physical benefits of nature are countless, such as lowering blood pressure, combating obesity, relieving stress and anxiety, and helping one focus, to name a few (Kuo, 2015). If nature can provide significant medical aid in human health, there needs to be an increase in efforts to encourage people within all racial backgrounds to engage in nature.

Personally, I believe that efforts can be made by creating diversity programs within the national park system. There currently is a diversity program for underrepresented college students and young adults. This can be implemented and grown so the next generation of people seeking the outdoors can be welcomed and encouraged to enjoy national parks.

Stay tuned for more in my next article for Diversity in National Parks series!

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Yosemite National Park

For further reading:

  • Bujis et al. (2009). No wilderness for immigrants: Cultural differences in images of nature and landscape preferences. Landscape and Urban Planning. 91, 2-3
  • Kearney, R. (2013). White People Love Hiking. Minorities Don’t. Here’s Why. The New Republic.
  • Kuo, M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in Psychology. 6, 2-3.
  • Nelson, G. (2015). Why Are Our Parks So White? The New York Times.
  • Schultz, P.W., Zelezny, L., Dalrymple, N.J., (2000). A multinational perspective on the relation between Judeo-Christian religious beliefs and attitudes of environmental concern. Environmental Behavior. 32, 576–591.
  • Williams, F. (2012). Take Two Hours of Pine Forest and Call Me in the Morning. Outside Magazine.