The number one emerging issue facing seniors in Canada is staying socially connected and active. How can park groups create the conditions for seniors to make the most of their community parks? By building buy-in, finding champions and careful planning, you can help build older adults’ relationship to the park.
Maybe you’re a community organization with a mandate to meaningfully engage seniors. Or, you’re a park group hoping to get seniors more engaged in your park events. Either way, you’re right to recognize that parks are an untapped resource that can deliver multiple benefits for seniors in your community and that it requires unique strategies to get seniors to your events.
A recent national report cited that “The number one emerging issue facing seniors in Canada is keeping older people socially connected and active.” However, it’s not enough to assume that because your park or event is open to the public that seniors will participate. As we highlighted in our Sparking Change Report:
“Parks can be places of healing, exchange and dialogue–but only if we create the conditions for everyone to participate.”
How can park groups “create the conditions” for seniors to use the park and see it as theirs? To answer this question, we spoke to Iffat Malick, Seniors Program Manager at Northwood Neighbourhood Services where English classes, bingo games, light exercise and intergenerational programming all take place in local parks.
Build Buy-In, Slowly
Initially, participants may be resistant to heading out to a local park. Iffat shared that this resistance may surface because a new experience can disrupt seniors' sense of routine which is linked to feelings of safety. It's true, a trip to the park does bring with it many considerations.
Seniors may ask themselves: What if it starts to rain? What if the walking path is too steep for me and I can’t keep up with the group? What if need to take my medication?
Iffat found that she was more successful when she just asked participants to try a one-off trip to the park as an experiment. In her experience, once people get outside and experience the fresh air and pleasures of being in nature, they tend to embrace park-based programming and look forward to future outdoor adventures.
Your first outing to the park should promote a sense of safety and build enthusiasm for future outings. For example, don’t go too far or for too long or over program your park trip. Keep it simple and end on a high note.
A champion from within the group will have much more influence over his or her peers than a flyer or a recommendation from a staff person.
If you have a park group, consider having a senior on your volunteer board or event planning committee as this person's ongoing endorsement and influence will carry weight. Spend the time to find this champion, and listen to their perspectives on the park.
Iffat emphasized that seniors are unlikely to want to attend park events on their own, but a champion can help organize a group that can come out to your park event and experience the great activities you’ve organized with them in mind.
Just Add Food
Park People’ Sparking Change Report highlighted that “food is one of the most effective ways to bring people together in public space.”
Food really is a great tool for socializing. We all need to eat, and doing it together helps build friendships, can help bridge cultural or social differences. As food policy expert Wayne Roberts highlighted, people are more relaxed when they’re in nature, and as a result experience food in a way that makes them less likely to rush, and more likely to better digest and reap the benefits derived from their food.
But most importantly, there’s nothing more joyful that sitting down together to enjoy a meal in the great outdoors. It’s a simple pleasure that is unique to parks and green spaces.
Cover the Basics
There are several issues that can contribute to seniors having a positive experience in the park, and all of them require some advanced planning.
- Walk the walk: Before you take participants on a walk to the park or along trails, be sure to walk the path yourself and ensure that there are safe, unobstructed walkways that aren’t too steep or too far for the group to manage. Remember, it’s better to start slow and build up distance over time. Plan for spots where participants can stop and rest and for places where people can sit and wait for others if the route is not suitable to everyone. Finally, be sure that the place you’re headed has shade, access to bathrooms and water as well as ample places to sit comfortably.
- Provide a list: Careful packing can make the trip much more pleasant for participants. Be sure to provide a packing list with items such as a sweater, water bottle, hat and appropriate layers of clothing for the weather. This will help reduce anxiety about the outing and can be used for future trips outdoors.
- Plan transportation: The team at Northwood has found that providing tokens for public transportation or renting a bus for longer park outings is key to success. However, they emphasized that it’s critical that the park is reasonably close to the drop-off point.
Let them Lead
Too often, seniors feel that their contributions are not valued. When seniors play an active role in developing programming in the park, they are more engaged, and more likely to be enthusiastic about participating. Also, developing the program becomes a process that helps participants get to know one another which can enrich your park programming.
At a recent Park People Park Summit, Lisa Deitrich, a volunteer with CultureLink’s Newcomers Explore and Appreciate Toronto program (NEAT) stated:
“As soon as we physically engage with –maybe even shape– our environment, it changes our relationship with this space. Active engagement creates a sense of control over our environment. And with this control comes a sense of security, of ownership, of belonging.”
The team at Northwood would wholeheartedly agree. They encourage participants to meaningfully engage with the park's physical space by planting native flowers or distributing special bags for participants to collect small items along the route to discuss and share. These experiences help build participants’ relationship to the park and encourage them to see it as “their” park.
Build Park Connections
Heading to the park doesn't' need to be tied to a formal program or event. But, it’s important to remember that not all seniors may have come from cultures where free and accessible use of public space is the norm. Also, some participants may not feel entirely safe visiting parks without the support of staff or a large event.
It’s helpful to map out local parks and brainstorm how these places can be integrated into their daily routine. Instead of walking along a busy street to get to the local mall, there may be a convenient way to travel using public trails that provide exposure to nature and offer more pleasant views.
This resource was developed with support from
As soon as we physically engage with –maybe even shape– our environment, it changes our relationship with this space. Active engagement creates a sense of control over our environment. And with this control comes a sense of security, of ownership, of belonging.Lisa Deitrich CultureLink