In New Zealand, we are spoiled with our breath-taking landscapes and wilderness. I think New Zealander’s especially, because of our close proximity, feel as though we have good connection to nature. However, a University of Otago study findings, published in the journal Environment and Behavior, revealed older people spent less time in natural places as they aged.
Contact with nature enhanced people’s physical, mental and spiritual well-being. There is already research evidence that exposure to nature can reduce hypertension (abnormally high blood pressure), respiratory tract and cardiovascular illnesses; improve vitality and mood; benefit issues of mental wellbeing such as anxiety; and restore attention capacity and mental fatigue. But more than that, feeling a part of nature has been shown to significantly correlate with life satisfaction, vitality, meaningfulness, happiness, mindfulness, and lower cognitive anxiety. But older adults’ ability to experience nature was often diminished by declining health, mobility, and home type.
This is why the connection between us and nature needs to be maintained when designing housing environments. Study co-author Prof Claire Freeman, of the Otago geography department, said planners had long known the importance of green space, but adjustments should be made to meet the needs of an ageing population. “People have a life-long contact with nature- it’s really important that they don’t lose it,” Prof Freeman said. More people were living in smaller houses and rest-homes, and needed “green immediately around their home”.
Research done in hospitals, offices, and schools has found that even a simple plant in a room can have a significant impact on stress and anxiety. Landscaping of rest-home gardens could also switch from focusing on colourful shrubs, and include more trees and native species likely to attract birds.
There is a need to normalise everyday nature as part of a healthy lifestyle. The real challenge for the future is how we get more people involved, knowing what we do about the very real benefits of nature.
Studies like the Otago one mentioned above, make it clear that nature isn’t just a nice thing to have – although it has a huge value in itself – it’s fundamentally important for our health, wellbeing and happiness and that ought to be reflected in our education system, in the way we treat the physically or mentally ill, in the way we build infrastructure and houses and in how we access and protect green spaces in cities.