Whiteley Foundation marks International Older Person’s Day with announcement of joint new `green therapy’ project 

1st October 2020

Today, 1st October is the 30th anniversary of International Older Person’s Day. The awareness this important event raises is particularly pertinent this year due to the challenges COVID-19 has placed on societies’ older members. It is also fitting then that this year marks the observance of the Decade of Healthy Ageing which recognises the contribution older people make towards to their own health and to the functioning of the societies in which they live.

We are marking International Older Person’s Day with an article from Alison Benzimra, Manager of the Whiteley Foundation, which in early 2021 will be starting an exciting new project with Surrey University, involving Whiteley residents, with the aim of helping researchers understand better how engagement with nature can support the health and wellbeing of older people – so called `green therapy`.

“The morning air hung heavily between the trees, blanketing the forest bed in a serene calmness. Our feet crunched softly on the pine-needled path, as Gail led us down into the centre of the woodland. Her peaked winter hat keeping her warm and protected from the misty drizzle filtering through the canopy above. Through all the seasons, exploring Whiteley’s woodlands has been a daily ritual for Gail and her walking partner since their arrivals at Whiteley several years ago. “I have backache and my daily walks keep me mobile” she says. “The ultimate benefit is what it does to my senses. Being out in nature is the best way to start my day.”

Driving into Whiteley Village, one is struck by the beauty of the natural surroundings. Nestled in 225 acres of natural gardens and woodland, Whiteley residents have access to feeding the ducks in the lake, playing a round on the 9-hole golf course, exploring the natural woodland and enjoying the manicured gardens lovingly tendered by those green-fingered residents.

Sitting with Sarah in her one-bedroom cottage, she looked out the window and remarked of her fortune of having to self-isolate in a setting such as Whiteley’s. “I was grateful that I was surrounded by nature during lockdown. My house may be small, but I am lucky that I have greenery to look out on.” Sarah and Gail’s experiences illustrate that nature plays a nuanced and influential role in the everyday lives of older adults. Studies have demonstrated that nature-based interventions can help reduce stress, improve mood, promote physical exercise, provide people with a sense of purpose, and increase social relationships. With the COVID-19 restrictions continuing in UK, the impact of nature of older person’s health and well-being is increasingly relevant.

The number of older people in the UK’s continues to increase and by 2036, over half the local authorities in the UK are projected to have 25% of their population age 65 and over. Providing accessible and affordable care for these people will be an increasing challenge. Interventions that encourage engagement with nearby nature can support health and wellbeing in an accessible and affordable way.

The Whiteley Foundation of Ageing Well in partnership with the University of Surrey are due to start a conservation project in the beginning of 2021. Co-designed with Whiteley residents the study will record plant, bird and insect species of the Whiteley eco-system. The ultimate aim of the project is to develop a set of guidelines for future nature-based interventions that are effective in promoting nature-engagement and supporting the health and wellbeing of older people.

“We were the luckiest older people in England,” Gail says to me as we walk through a tunnel of green. “I don’t know how I would have survived lockdown without access to nature.” As we near the end of our walk, Gail’s statement brings into focus how green spaces are integral to the quality of life of older persons. Starting the Decade of Healthy Ageing by better understanding the impact of COVID-19 has had on older people’s health will hopefully lead to a more collaborative approach in the context of the healthy urban policy to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being of all at all ages.

The Whiteley Foundation was established by the Whiteley Homes Trust in 2017 to “research and test innovations to help older people now and in the future live better quality lives, regardless of their personal wealth”. Find out more about their work here

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