Nature's Benefits for Seniors
Regular contact with the natural world can help provide health, happiness and a longer life
IT'S BEEN A FEW YEARS since Alida Struze last marveled at the canyons of Zion National Park, the glaciers of Alaska or the fjords of Norway. But at age 92, she still regularly ventures down to the Lake Erie waterfront from her Cleveland home to watch the sun set over the lake. “If you wait a few minutes you’ll see a beautiful afterglow, the clouds lined with gold,” she says. And along with memories of her far-flung trips and the perennial beauty and fragrance of roses and daffodils, those sunsets bring Struze, a long-time NWF supporter, a joy and appreciation for the natural world that’s helped sustain her through a long and productive life. Until three years ago, she was still serving as a social worker for the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland, which provides legal help to low-income residents. “Loving people and loving nature are the only talents I have,” she says.
Now Struze worries that too many people—especially the nation’s elderly—are losing that essential connection to nature. “It’s killing us,” she says.
Struze’s fear may be literally true. In a study published in 2002, Japanese researchers asked a simple question: In a group of seniors who otherwise seem similar, why do some live longer than others? To find out, the researchers rounded up the records of more than 3,000 Tokyo residents between 74 and 89 years old in 1992, charted how many of those seniors were alive five years later and tried to explain variations in longevity. Two differences jumped out. People who lived near parks and green spaces where they could walk and those who spent more time in sunlight were far more likely to be alive after five years than those who had neither. The researchers concluded that providing more walkable green spaces in cities would boost the health of senior citizens.
The Japanese study and Struze’s life raise more questions about the role of the outdoors and nature than they answer. Perhaps those who amble through parks, climb mountains, tend gardens or cast for trout are just healthier to begin with. Perhaps working out in a gym or power walking through shopping malls, both proven methods for enhancing seniors’ health, are just as beneficial as tromping through the woods or watching birds. To figure this out, Jacqueline Kerr, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of California–San Diego (UCSD), is trying to get support for a randomized clinical trial that would divide similar seniors into groups that are physically active or not, inside or outside. Until such a study is done, “we don’t have definitive answers,” she says.
Like many other researchers, though, Kerr believes that being outside, especially in a natural setting, offers something extra, whether it’s an additive beneficial effect from the body making more Vitamin D when out in the sun or something more ineffable. One of her own studies, for instance, shows that elderly people engage in more physical activity when they do it outside. And improved health from contact with nature just makes sense. “We’re Cro-Magnons—no different from the guy with a spear chasing the woolly mammoth,” says Andrew Duxbury, associate professor of medicine in the University of Alabama–Birmingham’s Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care. “We are designed to be outdoor creatures. We need to be outside, not huddled around the TV set.”
You certainly won’t find Ken Kurtz glued to the couch. Three times a week, the 82-year-old Santa Fe, New Mexico, architect meets with members of an informal group he founded, the Over the Arroyo Gang, to hike along a rushing mountain stream or to snowshoe on trails above 10,000 feet. Kurtz even gave up designing houses a few years ago to have more time for hiking and for the special camaraderie that comes from sharing the experience of the natural world. Sometimes, a companion may wonder if getting a workout on a treadmill might be easier. Kurtz’s reply: “No way. What you are thinking about is different when you are outside. Rather than going to a gym because you think you ought to, hiking in all that beauty is something you can’t resist doing. The fact that it is healthy is an added plus.”
Plenty of benefits can be acquired from a close connection to nature without scaling peaks or taking other strenuous actions. In fact, many studies have shown that patients whose hospital rooms look out over parks or green spaces recuperate faster after surgery than do those without a view, says UCSD’s Kerr. That’s why there’s a nascent movement, called the Eden Alternative or the Green Alternative, to get nursing homes to put elderly residents in touch with nature. The elderly “need connectiveness to the world,” Duxbury explains. “They need to be out among green, growing things, around animals and around children—all things usually banned from nursing homes.” Gardens can be especially important. “One of the chief needs of a human being is to be needed,” Duxbury says. Meeting that need for the old and infirm is a challenge, but “one way to do it is gardening and taking care of plants.”
For those fortunate not to require nursing-home care, connecting to nature and to wild things also brings rich rewards. After moving to Orinda, California, in 1976, Chuck and Jane Rubey joined NWF, put up a bird feeder and created a habitat for wildlife (right). “It has sort of grown on us,” Chuck says. After retiring from IBM in 1992, Chuck took up wildlife photography, and the couple began to travel, often on NWF trips. They watched wolves in Yellowstone, polar bears in Norway, tortoises in the Galápagos and whales in Maui. When Jane, now 75, was recovering from cancer, being able to sit by the kitchen window and watch the birds in her NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat® site “was immensely important,” recalls husband Chuck.
“The older I get, the more this starts to be spiritually connected,” he says. “You start to see that your life isn’t unlimited anymore, and to be able to see all these magnificent creatures and witness the wonders of wildlife become more important. It brings a feeling of goodness,” he says.
Out at the University of California–Los Angeles, geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Helen Lavretsky makes good use of that feeling in her patients. She finds that walks in the woods or the outdoor yoga classes she leads can be very effective in reducing stress and improving health. “I haven’t seen a single patient who attributes joy to shoe shopping,” she says. “But just being outside is a major pleasure, and being in nature is a powerful thing. It’s in our roots. It’s essential for our sleep, our mood, our health. It’s the ultimate pleasure of being connected to the Earth.”
Even without definitive studies unequivocally proving the benefits of this connection, say experts like Kerr and Lavretsky, the policy prescription is clear: To improve the well-being and health of the nation’s elderly, the country should figure out how to bring the great outdoors and the natural world into the lives of more of its seniors so that more people can experience the joy of a Lake Erie sunset, a hike along a rushing mountain stream or the howl of a wolf in the wild.
Freelance writer John Carey is a former long-time senior correspondent in Businessweek’s Washington bureau and a former National Wildlife senior editor.
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