A Post-Pandemic Increase in Older Adult Programming

By Allie Ziegler | Posted on May 21, 2024

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Park and recreation professionals serve their communities year-round and are especially important in times of unprecedented challenges. As many park and recreation agencies experienced an influx of visitors to their parks and trails during the pandemic, the vast majority were forced to cancel all indoor programming that could not be made available online. These closed spaces were especially difficult for older adults as they were strongly recommended to isolate to protect their health. However, in the months and years following the most stringent lockdowns, older adult programming in parks and recreation has been seeing a resurgence in participation. The Supporting Older Adults Through Parks and Recreation report, conducted by the NRPA Research team in December of 2023, highlights briefly how park and recreation professionals dealt with the lingering impacts of COVID-19 on older adults’ participation.

During COVID-19, strict policies were enforced to safeguard the health of older adults, including social distancing, limiting group size and self-isolation, so it was only natural to see a dip in participant numbers. Comparing 2019 to this year, more than half of the agencies surveyed reported an increase in the number of older adults taking part in their programs. Twenty-two percent of agencies experienced the same number of participants as 2019 and 21 percent of agencies saw a decrease in older adult participants.

Similarly, since the pandemic ended, 62 percent of agencies have seen an increase in the number of older adult programs offered. Thirty-one percent of agencies continue to offer the same number as 2019, whereas only 7 percent decreased the number of older adult program offerings. To keep these programs going requires dedicated park and recreation staff. Nearly a third of park and recreation agencies have increased staff dedicated to older adult programming since 2019. Staff size for older adult programs stayed the same as 2019 at 56 percent of park and recreation agencies. Only a small percentage of agencies experienced a reduction in this dedicated staff (14 percent).

The pandemic not only led to an increase in program offerings but also prompted the implementation of added beneficial measures. Agencies reported in the survey that they strive to meet higher standards of cleaning and hygiene in their facilities and have expanded the locations in which older adult programming occurs. Fifty-seven percent of agencies stated that they deliver older adult programming at recreation centers, 53 percent at parks, trails and greenways, and 50 percent at senior centers and community centers. Other positive impacts from the pandemic that agencies reported are more awareness about the benefits of staying physically and mentally fit and active for health.

Despite the extensive impact of COVID-19 on all aspects of society, park and recreation professionals upheld their commitment to providing older adults with a reliable, safe place for social gatherings and physical activity. The Supporting Older Adults Through Parks and Recreation report details the rise in participation and program offerings post-pandemic, highlighting the invaluable role that parks and recreation plays in enhancing the well-being of communities. Stay tuned for my upcoming blog focusing on the challenges park and recreation agencies face in serving the older adult population.  

Allie Ziegler (she/her) is a research assistant at NRPA.

Related blog posts:

Benefits of Older Adult Programming at Parks and Recreation