Some days, Jim Grunzweig strolls from his apartment home at Judson Park to the Case Western Reserve University campus, tuning in to the energy of students rushing to class or those quiet periods when he can let his mind wander. A former college administrator, he admits this route takes him down memory lane.
Other days, Grunzweig, 86, walks to University Circle by Severance Hall and the Cleveland Museum of Art. “I’ve almost made it to Little Italy — that’s my goal,” he says,
estimating it’s about a mile and a half from where he lives. “There is a way for me to cut up to the Cedar-Fairmount area, and I like the bakery and bookstore up there. It’s a different type of walk, so it gives me variety,” he relates.
Walking outdoors — immersed in sights, sounds, smells and the feeling of feet-to-ground — is a multi-sensory experience that does a body good for so many reasons. “If I’m not outside, I feel cooped up,” Grunzweig says.
We don’t think about all the health benefits in play from simply stepping out for a breath of fresh air or sitting on a bench to watch the world go by. “There’s a sense of freedom, and we know that nature produces immediate positive results on mood and behavior, and that’s especially true for those with dementia,” says Vivian Springer, executive director of Jennings at Notre Dame Village in Chardon.
A study published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias shows that spending time in gardens decreases symptoms for those suffering from memory impairment disorders including Alzheimer’s.
For instance, movement outdoors can reduce end-of-day agitation referred to as sundowning, points out Laura Chernauskas, memory care advisor at Arden Courts of Westlake. “Nature is calming, and outside in the fresh air, they can explore, browse, interact and be involved,” she says, relating how colorful flower beds and bird feeders — an ever-changing environment — invites engagement and conversation.
For those recovering from a medical issue, walking in a natural setting increases the quality of life, speeds healing and also improves attention while reducing stress, according to a study in the journal, Stroke.
At any age and stage, nature heals.
“It should be no surprise that as we age, we still enjoy time outdoors,” Springer says.
There are many reasons to “play outside” and ways to do so that are
accessible and practical.
Freedom to Explore
With more than 30 landscaped, wooded and “growing” acres of land, Rose Mary Zverina can always find a fresh take on time outdoors at The Normandy in Rocky River, where she moved a year and a half ago. “You can walk around the pond and listen to the bullfrogs, and when you get to the main path, it’s like walking in the Metroparks,” she says.
“My balcony looks into the courtyard, and I can see the lake through the trees before the leaves come out,” she continues. “It’s ever-changing, and you can really get lost in the beauty.”
Providing walking paths, gardens to plant, a putting green, a fire pit for s’mores nights and countless blooms on campus makes accessing nature as easy as stepping out onto an
apartment landing or taking a few steps outdoors.
“In the back of the property, we have a pond area where we have tables, chairs and umbrellas in the summer so people can take their lunch outdoors and just meet,” says Kim Zdanowicz, an independent social worker and director or marketing at the Normandy campus. Offering raised garden beds so residents can grow veggies or flowers offers a sense of home, adds Tracy Swisher, The Normandy’s director of life enrichment. “Many came from homes with beautiful gardens where they spent hours, so this gives them a piece of that here,” she says. “Some have brought roses or other plants and relocated them to our grounds.”
At Arden Courts, dedicated to memory care, an enclosed and secure courtyard with walkways allows
residents to step out safely whenever they want. “It is designed so they can go freely outside, get fresh air and just be in nature,” Chernauskas says, adding that this layout is intentional.
There is so much to be said for the ability to simply open the door and walk out, safely. “Giving people that freedom to come and go at will, of having that self-destiny and self-esteem,” Springer explains that gardens and flower beds are purposely designed to invite residents to dote, water, pick a weed or pluck a veggie.
“They can turn on the hose just as they would at home and care for the plants,” she says. “We want it to be very organic and offer the freedom to move within the environment. So much of our lives are spontaneous and we want this to be that way, as well. Those little things that happen every day in the moment are what can make a day special.”
A Breath of Fresh Air
Nature is literally a breath of fresh air, and this helps regulate sleep and eating patterns, along with providing a healthy dose of Vitamin D. Natural light plays a big role in mental health, too. And you don’t have to spend much time to gain the benefits. According to a study published in Science News, just two hours per week is enough to promote health and well-being.
Sometimes called forest bathing, time outdoors in nature can work as a mental and physical reset button.
“Being outdoors for older folks can really bring a sense of peace and calm—listening to birds, the sound of water lapping against the shore, or just watching the world go by,” says Kelly Colby, executive director at Devon Oaks Assisted Living in
Fresh air cleans the lungs, boosts mood, lowers the heart rate, increases energy levels and even improves digestion because it increases oxygen flow. Not to mention, getting out prevents cabin fever—even if for just a few minutes to soak in some sun or feel the breeze.
As Grunzweig says, “Walking outdoors makes me feel relaxed and
Admittedly a weather watcher, he tends to walk indoors if the temperature is colder than 40 degrees or if precipitation is more than he wants to navigate with an umbrella. On days when Northeast Ohio is not offering a whole lot of Vitamin D rays, open a window to let in fresh air, Springer suggests.
Even looking out a window and letting natural light fill a room can go a long way toward lifting spirits. “Open the shades and drapes and let the light come in,” she encourages.
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