How people experience the natural world changes as they age. Sensory perceptions, such as sight and smell, can alter over time. So how important is getting outside into nature for older people – including those living with dementia – and how can we deliver better experiences?
According to a review of available research amongst the over 60s, being outdoors and experiencing nature, plants and wildlife offers real physical, social and mental benefits for older people. How much they can benefit, however, depends on how they are limited by their own capabilities. And the research suggests that these limits are hindering people from spending as much time outside as they would like.
Studies suggest that being outdoors, in gardens or landscapes, is of great therapeutic value. The UK government itself has asserted that everyone should have fair access to a good quality natural environment. That access can play a key role in a further government priority of enabling people to live well with dementia.
The research suggests that beautiful views from a window enable many to connect with the natural world regardless of mobility. For those able to travel, access to a car opened up opportunities to get outside in different landscapes. Even in cities, being able to track the changing face of nature through community areas or even watching the detail of trees through the seasons brings pleasure.
In sensory terms, feeling the wind, hearing birdsong and taking in countryside or seaside fresh air and associated scents helped people to connect with nature, enjoy a sense of peace and tranquility, and raise the feeling of well-being.
For those who live in residential settings the ability to get outside in some way is important. As well as contributing to a sense of well-being, it helps people to feel less trapped in their surroundings.
And for older people still living at home, the garden or the allotment can still hold great attraction, although changing needs may mean a re-think of how the space works safely and can be maintained easily.
Those who can access transport or join community groups can benefit from tours across landscapes or visits to gardens and historic homes. Older people are core to memberships of organisations such as the National Trust and the Royal Horticultural Society, and while they continue to work to attract young families, it would be nice to think that they recognise the importance of their offerings to their more mature members.