Transforming the Lives of Older Adults Through Park and Recreation Programs

By Allie Ziegler | Posted on June 3, 2024

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The final blog post in this series highlights the transformative impact of parks and recreation on the physical, mental and social well-being of the valued older adults in our communities. Discover how these programs foster happiness and personal growth among them and the community, from fitness milestones to newfound friendships. The NRPA Research team's Supporting Older Adults Through Parks and Recreation report examines how these positive experiences are achieved and the key role played by park and recreation staff in ensuring their success.

One of the top reported benefits of park and recreation programming for older adults is promoting physical activity and healthy living. Agencies nationwide offer various outdoor and indoor activities to encourage older community members to embrace new experiences. In Maryland, older adults can embark on exciting new adventures at the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks. The department has recently created a new program called Encore Adventures that allows adults 55 and older to participate in various outdoor activities. Participants in the program can explore activities such as kayaking, archery, fishing, biking, history hikes and even an indoor rock wall. After completing five different adventure programs, their enthusiasm for staying active is acknowledged with a patch and certificate.

Park and recreation agencies are meant to be hubs for socializing and enjoyable experiences. Having been encouraged to isolate themselves for their safety during the pandemic, older adults now express a strong desire to re-engage in social interactions. Facilities have provided various ways for members to spend time with each other significantly. For example, members aged 70 and older of the St. Charles Park District Adult Activity Center in Illinois have established the Harmelodian Club. They meet weekly for 90 minutes in a safe and welcoming atmosphere to practice playing the harmonica together. Lynne Yuill, a supervisor at the activity center notes, “They are a close-knit group that really cares about each other.” Through learning a new skill at their local park and recreation facility, older adults in the community have been able to socialize and form meaningful connections.  

Intergenerational programming is highly valued among members aged 55 and over. Park and recreation agencies play a vital role in fostering connections between older adults and the younger members of the community. This intergenerational approach facilitates bonding and understanding between these distinct groups. A prime example of this successful programming is clear at the Burlington Department of Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront in Vermont. Here, young children gather weekly at the senior center to share a meal and socialize. They collaborate on art projects that adorn the hallways of the center and craft tie-dye t-shirts together. Engaging in discussions about preferred colors and patterns further strengthens the bond they are forming. Other activities both generations take part in together include berry-picking at a local farm, field trips to community gardens, making smoothies using local produce, and cooking lessons. The success of these joint activities is a testament to the dedication of park and recreation staff and their position in helping form this connection.

This series has illustrated the profound impact that parks and recreation has on the well-being of older adults. Each of these stories at park and recreation agencies in the U.S. vividly illustrates the transformative influence of older-adult programs. The NRPA Research team's Supporting Older Adults Through Parks and Recreation report serves as a comprehensive guide that reveals the methods that contribute to these positive experiences. As older adults restore their social lives after pandemic-induced isolation, these facilities stand as key places for friendship and enjoyment. The success stories presented here not only celebrate the achievements of participants but also acknowledge the instrumental role of park and recreation agencies in fostering an environment conducive to growth, happiness and a sense of community.

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

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