Thinking of my childhood trips to the park brings me right back to the feeling of the sun on my face and summer days when all I was worried about was not missing the neighborhood ice cream truck. As a kid, I would go to several nearby parks with my grandparents after school or on weekends on foot, bicycle, or skates. Living in Queens, New York meant I had sidewalks to walk or roll, and depending on the destination of my park of choice, a few high-traffic intersections that required the assistance of a guardian. When I moved to rural South Carolina as a pre-teen, trips to the park changed. A trip to the park now required a car, since there were no parks nearby. And once there, our guardians or grandparents would let us out to play while they watched and escaped from South Carolina’s summer heat in the comfort of an air-conditioned car. Now, as a mom of two small toddlers, I understand the practicality of retreating to the cool car. But reflecting as an adult on the difference between trips by car to the park and my experience in Queens makes me see them in a new way. While the benefits of those trips appealed to me as a kid, I never thought about the benefits or lack thereof, they provided my grandparents.
Having walkable and bikeable access to parks allowed me and my grandparents to engage in physical activity together. While walking is a beneficial form of exercise for all people, it is especially beneficial for senior populations. Access to Safe Routes to Parks, can encourage older adults to increase their physical activity which can amplify their health and well-being. But having sidewalks to walk or roll to a park doesn’t make that park accessible to all. In 2019, Safe Routes to Parks Activating Communities grantee, Salem Leadership Foundation, understood this well when they saw a barrier to park access for older adults, individuals in wheelchairs, those walking with walkers, or anyone needing wheels such as strollers and wagons. While Woodmansee Park had sidewalks that ran the full length of the paved access road into the park, the sidewalks did not have curb cuts to allow guests off of the path until they reached the end of the access road. If you needed to access a restroom at the park, your trip was even further. Salem Leadership Foundation added curb cuts to existing sidewalks and additional sidewalks to make park and restroom access easier for all community members.
Taking a short car ride to a park as a kid still provided me with enjoyment and physical activity, but the health benefits of physical activity for my grandparents were no longer there. Research shows that having safe connections to get to parks is essential to maximizing the health benefits of parks. And that these benefits are critical for adults as they age, to prevent and manage chronic diseases, plus, not to mention reaping the positive impacts of being outdoors. Safe Routes Partnership recently wrote about how Safe Routes to Parks can be used to support the Community Preventive Services Task Force (CPSTF) recommendations for park, trail, and greenway infrastructure interventions combined with additional interventions, such as structured programs or community awareness, to increase physical activity. Safe Routes to Parks can improve access to parks and recreation facilities which can support evidence-based programming like Walk With Ease, a walking program for managing arthritis. Evidence shows that Walk With Ease programs improve arthritis symptoms and increase self-efficacy, perceived control, balance, strength, and walking pace. Integrating Safe Routes to Parks with Walk With Ease, like the Oregon Health Authority is doing, allows participants the opportunity to identify ways to make parks more safe and accessible. Because the best way to find out what community members need to enjoy parks and how to safely get to them, especially seniors, is to engage them and ask them, just like in Salem.
As I think back on my memories of park trips with my grandparents, I hope my kids will create similar memories. All children and grandparents should have that opportunity to create memories together and the month of May is a perfect time to start. May is Older Americans Month. This year’s theme is Aging Unbound, which encourages us to think about aging and how we all benefit when older adults remain engaged, independent, and included. Here are a few ways you can be intentional about creating intergenerational connections and improving health with Safe Routes to Parks this month.
- Grab your sneakers, bike, skates, older adults, and kids, and make a plan to get to a park for Kids to Parks Day on May 19.
- Take a walk to your local park or trail for National Senior Health and Fitness Day on May 31.
- Find a local Walk with Ease program to stay active.