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Exercise and hobbies in assisted living and care homes: why it’s important to design spaces that encourage participation


Much has been written about how access to good quality, stimulating environments is good for our health yet older people often have reduced access to such spaces and activities, for a variety of reasons. This has been exacerbated by the recent pandemic; and resulting lockdowns have meant that many of the retired population have had to shield in their homes - or in the case of care homes, their rooms - for safety. It's a good time to ask if care settings have the right spaces available to offer adequate activities to keep seniors socially and physically active, and to start looking at how we promote and integrate exercise and hobbies into the buildings themselves through careful design, inside and out.

The benefits of exercising outdoors

Exercising outside makes us feel great and comes with health benefits. Daylight regulates our body clock and helps us sleep at night; exercising in fresh air improves our mood, reduces stress, increases self esteem and being in sunlight helps us produce Vitamin D, which is vital for building and maintaining strong bones and muscles. Research shows that the health of people with dementia improves significantly when they spend as little as 10-15 minutes of activity outside every day.
With so many benefits, it's clear that gardens should be designed to allow everyone to exercise in all weathers, no matter their physical or mental health. This may mean providing walk ways or ‘Trim trail’ paths with benches or specimen shrubs as distance markers, to encourage a sense of achievement as residents set personal targets. Captain Tom’s recent walk around his garden is a great example. When these walkways are covered, then these challenges can continue for much of the year.
Those unable to or who prefer not to walk can still benefit from more leisurely exercise and outdoor hobbies. Gardening, for instance, not only burns calories and helps build and maintain muscle strength, it also increases hand-eye coordination, which helps to keep the brain and body in sync. Gardening also lowers stress-producing cortisol levels and raises serotonin; a calming chemical that induces a good mood. The physical demands of gardening and critical thinking skills regarding what to plant and how to take care of it reduces the risk of dementia. Research shows that those already suffering with dementia tend to enjoy revitalising a former hobby.

To facilitate gardening for both able bodied and wheelchair-bound residents to safely get involved without bending is very simple by using raised flower beds, pots and planters. As is the ample provision of benches and covered rest areas, with flexible space to accommodate several residents at one time.

Options for exercising indoors

It's a different challenge to find ways to make it easier to exercise and enjoy hobbies indoors. Some homes have open indoor spaces for visiting specialist trainers offering aerobic exercise or resistance classes, and many higher-end care homes provide gyms and sometimes swimming pools alongside bowls facilities and extensive gardens. These social spaces can also be used for enjoying hobbies in a communal environment: everything from doing a jigsaw to sing-a-longs and crafts.

In all cases, the space provision needs to be flexible and adaptable depending on the residents’ health and capabilities. It is usually inexpensive to provide open space but more planning may be needed to provide specialist rooms. For example providing rooms where residents can pursue hobbies relevant to their former occupations - such as sewing, cooking, woodwork or typing. These activities are not only enjoyable, they tap into positive emotions and self worth, as well as enhancing cognitive skills. For this reason, it's best if these activity centres form part of the overall design from the outset, although they can be retrofitted into older homes.

The key is to carefully consider how to provide and position the spaces, ensuring easy access so they are welcoming and accessible. There are some very simple solutions that allow exercise and hobbies to be as much a way of life for our older population as it is for all of us.

We have considerable experience of designing retirement villages and ‘Later Living’ schemes always striving to incorporate adequate external space and landscaping to encourage regular appropriate exercise where possible, and dynamic indoor space that allows for hobbies and exercise in all weathers. Assisted living and dementia care sectors can be more challenging as space needs to allow for medical attention and additional support, but it is possible and indeed encouraged to help residents maintain general health and mental well-being.

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