Outdoor Spaces Improve Senior Community Experiences

By Andy McLeod
Senior Living

Take advantage of the great outdoors to improve outcomes

Being outdoors is good for everyone. The benefits associated with communing with nature have been explored by scientists world-wide and it is clear that getting outside is good for our bodies and our minds. Knowing this, it’s not surprising the senior living communities are looking for ways to increase their resident’s exposure to nature.  From creating calming outdoor areas with comfortable seating to resident managed gardens of vegetables and flowers, communities are fully embracing the mental and physical benefits of nature. 

Outdoor experiences are particularly helpful with seniors with memory loss. Nature stimulates all of the senses and encourages physical activity. Studies have shown that even just having a view of nature helped reduce stress in dementia residents. We are currently researching behavioral and staffing impacts of adding a memory garden to a skilled nursing facility in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We believe that the results will match an earlier study (2019) of a Multi-Sensory Stimulation Environment in a memory care neighborhood. Behaviors reduced, psychotropic medication doses decreased, and staff turnover substantially reduced (Prince, et.al, 2019).

If you are considering creating or updating your outdoor space, there are a few things to keep in mind.

  • Consider creating an outdoor space with wandering paths. Paths that guide residents suffering from memory loss to dead ends can cause confusion and anxiety. Make sure there is seating along the paths for resting and conversation.
  • Avoid potential hazards like steps and slippery material surfaces and include decorative railings and fences.
  • Include low-maintenance edible (just in case) plants that are easily recognized by your residents. This can help trigger pleasant memories.
  • Plants that attract butterflies and birds may require additional maintenance, but they will provide wonderful viewing to an actual aviary.
  • Provide areas that are sunny and shaded as much as your location will allow. Shading devices that are built in usually perform better and provide a better aesthetic, but an umbrella can do the job too.
  • Develop the garden in an area that can be easily seen from indoors. Include plants that have visual appeal throughout the year. If resident room window looks into the space, even better.
  • Consider nurse call stations at various points throughout the paths. Even with wearable units, fixed stations can be very beneficial.
  • If this is a secure area, make sure that you do not have two delayed egress devices in the egress path (i.e. if the door accessing the enclosed area has a delayed egress, then the exterior gate cannot).
  • If this area is (or will be) enclosed by building(s), make sure you plan for storm water management to ensure the area is not wet, slippery or promoting insect life.

Outdoor spaces can be large or small – simply having an easy option for getting outside is another great tool to improve the health and well-being of your residents.

Andy McLeod, AIA, LEED AP, EDAC,CDP

Andy McLeod brings more than a dozen years of senior living design experience to the team as our Senior Living Practice Leader. He has a driving passion to see residential settings for seniors transformed into spaces that feel like home. Andy has even taken the unusual step of becoming a Certified Dementia Practitioner to better understand how design can positively impact adults with memory loss.