Green spaces and blue spaces — environments with running or still water — are especially beneficial for healthy aging in seniors, according to a recent study.

OT_News-01Past research has shown people can gain physical and mental health benefits by spending time in nature, according to a news release. However, the authors wrote in the introduction, there is a lack of evidence linking blue spaces to health and well-being. The new study, conducted by a University of Minnesota graduate student with a team in Vancouver, British Columbia, was published in the July issue of the journal Health and Place.

For the study, “Therapeutic landscapes and wellbeing in later life: Impacts of blue and green spaces for older adults,” researchers interviewed adults ages 65-86 who lived in Vancouver. All study participants were considered low-income, came from eight different self-identified racial and ethnic groups, and experienced a range of chronic conditions and experiences of health. None of the participants had significant memory problems, according to the study.

After the first sit-down interview, participants were asked to go on a voluntary walking interview. For the optional interview, participants picked their route and were in control of all decisions related to speed, direction and duration. One year later, the researchers followed up with interested participants and conducted another set of interviews.

Findings showed green and blue spaces promoted feelings of renewal, restoration and spiritual connectedness. They also provided places for multigenerational social interactions and engagement, including planned activities with friends and families, and impromptu gatherings with neighbors, the study found.

“We zoomed in to 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,” lead author Jessica Finlay, a former research assistant on the project, said in the release. Finlay is a doctoral candidate in geography and gerontology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where she continues to investigate influences of the built environment on health and well-being in later life.

“Accessibility to everyday green and blue spaces encourages seniors to simply get out the door,” she said in the release. “This in turn motivates them to be active physically, spiritually and socially, which can offset chronic illness, disability and isolation.”

The study found public health strategies incorporating smaller features, such as a koi pond or a bench with a view of flowers, could boost nature as a health resource for older adults.

Importance of everyday contact with nature

While younger people might use green and blue spaces more to escape and rejuvenate from their busy work life, study participants reported using nature to be active physically, spiritually and socially in later life. Many overcame barriers caused by chronic illness, disability and progressing old age to connect regularly with green and blue spaces.

The study also found nature offered places for older adults to heal and recover, the authors wrote, which is important to a population that faces increased risk of disease, injury and hospitalization. The study cited a 75-year-old woman named Barbara who used green spaces to recover after a fall. She reported starting with short walks in which she would “just go up the corner and sit on the bench and walk back.”

When the researchers interviewed her 12 months later, they found she had improved her physical strength.

“She had made an enthusiastic lifestyle change that embraced daily walking, stair climbing and other exercises,” the authors wrote. “Barbara felt better, had higher energy levels, had lost weight, and improved her stamina.

Natural environments can help older adults uphold daily structure in retirement and can provide opportunities for diverse activities outside the home. This is important to quality of later life by decreasing boredom, isolation and loneliness while boosting a person’s sense of purpose and accomplishment. Blue space in particular provides opportunities for non-weight bearing physical activity and physiotherapy such as wading, water walking or swimming, the authors wrote. Study participants reported waterfront areas are comforting sites for spiritual connectedness with deceased loved ones, and relaxing places to escape the strains of later life.

Because the study included only low-income adults and took place in an area with a moderate, coastal climate, the authors wrote, the findings could not be generalized to a higher-income group or adults in a different climate.

“While our research may seem intuitive, it creates conversations on how to build communities that serve people across their entire lifetime,” Finlay said in the release. “We don’t just need a playground for children, we also need sheltered benches for the grandparents to watch them. This research is more than anecdotal; it gives credence to some small but significant elements of everyday later life. Hopefully it will help urban planners and developers build communities that span a lifetime.”

Study abstract: