Seniors and the built environment

Health Matters

Paul Martiquet / Health Columnist
August 18, 2014 10:59 AM

There is a link between how active and mobile seniors are and the state of their local environment. When a neighbourhood is physically suited to getting around and there are reasons to get out of the house or apartment, seniors are more active. This is particularly important to realize as our population ages and we face increasing demand on health and social services.

The built and social environments both play a role in older adults’ mobility, community engagement and health. Seniors can be encouraged or dissuaded to be physically and socially active outdoors and in the community, depending on their environment. Other benefits of more walkable spaces include better mental health. In one study from Washington state, older men living in neighbourhoods ranked as more walkable had a lower risk of depressive symptoms.

Studies of built environments and their influence on the population clearly suggest that supportive built and social environments are linked with older adults’ walking; poor social and built environments, in turn, limit community mobility.

As the population ages, the benefits of mobility on the physical and mental health of older adults becomes ever more important. In fact, there will be some nine million Canadians aged 65 or older by 2036, or a quarter of the population. Finding ways to help seniors stay in their homes as they age is an ideal, one that can lead to enhanced quality of life, decreased risk for developing chronic conditions and reduce the growing healthcare costs associated with aging.

There is a role for built and social environments in enhancing older adults’ ability to remain active in their community. Certain characteristics of neighbourhoods support seniors staying active out of doors, staying mobile. One of the most significant is having sidewalks (in the first place) and making sure they are well-maintained. Poor walking surfaces or lack of sidewalks both strongly discourage walking.

Another key characteristic that encourages seniors to be active is their perceived safety and confidence. Having clear street crossings and good lighting at night both contribute to this. More walking by older adults was associated with community-level factors. These include the presence of open and green spaces, trails and parks. Other elements that support increased walking activity are streets with more businesses, more retail destinations and amenities in general.

An aging population will demand significant health and economic costs at both personal and societal levels. It makes sense, therefore, to implement and support strategies to keep people active, especially into their later years. Decision-makers can enact policies that support these goals, including maintaining walking surfaces, building sidewalks, ensuring good lighting especially in neighbourhoods home to a large proportion of older adults.

Seniors can benefit from having strong, welcoming neighbourhoods, but so too will every resident. After all, good sidewalks are good for all residents. Of course, supporting people’s mobility is so much more than good sidewalks, but maybe we can let them remind us that not everyone can and will get around on their own all the time. A welcoming neighbourhood environment facilitates opportunities for both physical activity and social interaction.

Editor’s note: Dr. Paul Martiquet is the medical health officer for rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.

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