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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