By Sue Paul, OTR/L, COO
“We’ve put more effort into helping folks reach old age than into helping them enjoy it.”
–Frank A. Clark
Meet Jessica. She is a 44-year-old mother of 2. After her divorce, she and her boys moved in with her parents, Bill and Sandra. Jessica works full time in a medical office Monday through Friday.
At 83 years old, Bill has a host of orthopedic problems including an unstable knee that compromises his balance and standing tolerance. He is fiercely independent and refuses to “take it easy” or give up any of his home management responsibilities including mowing the yard or washing the car. Jessica has found Bill on the ground several times in the yard, and has asked him to stay indoors while she is at work. Bill does not see the point in limiting his activities and thinks once he stops tinkering around the garage and yard, there will be no point in living. He loves being outdoors.
Sandra has Alzheimer’s disease and is unable to do the tasks she used to do, like laundry, and the finances, and cooking dinner every night. Sandra follows Bill around, even when he goes outside. Sandra loves to walk, and has wandered off a few times through the neighborhood. Bill, who doesn’t fully grasp the extent of his wife’s cognitive limitations, does not pay attention to his wife’s comings and goings.
Jessica worries about what she will find each day when she returns from work. Her mother’s sense of wellbeing seems to plummet each evening, when she paces and wrings her hands and repeats herself over and over. Bill may be agitated as well, frustrated over his lack of physical strength and mobility, his wife’s odd behavior, and his confinement to the home. But those findings, though challenging, are more acceptable than other scenarios she’s come home to: Bill lying on the patio out back next to the watering can and Sandra no where in sight, having walked “to the bus stop to wait for her kids”.
Jessica tells me that she knows what her parents need. They need socialization, and exercise, and to spend time outdoors. We talk about options like adult day care or activities at the senior center, but there are financial challenges and resistance from her father that are seemingly insurmountable. Jessica sometimes takes her mother to the mall after work to let her walk around and look at stuff. But sometimes the mall is too crowded and over-stimulating, and leaves her mother more rattled after the experience. Her father refuses to go even for the chance to get out and walk on level ground. He says he hates shopping
“I am willing to take them places after work and on the weekends, but I really don’t know of a place that they will enjoy and that will accommodate their disabilities.”
I have been working as an occupational therapist in Frederick for over 15 years, and I have always been well aware of the lack of physical, usable, practical space for people who are trying to maintain or improve their health. Although my passion has long been seniors and, perhaps even moreso, the cognitively impaired and their exhausted caregivers, I have always been aware of the lack of physical spaces where older adults can work on their own healthy objectives.
I meet Jessicas and Sandras and Bills every day. I also meet frail older adults, people battling chronic disease, stressed out caregivers, recently hospitalized patients, orthopedically impaired, neurologically impaired, sensory impaired, mobility impaired, cognitively impaired, not-impaired-and-don’t-ever-want-to-be-impaired folks… Their ages vary from 40 to 60 to 80 to 100. I see these people every single day. But do you know where I never see them? In a public park.
That is because the park system caters to the healthy. There are parks specially designed for skaters, joggers, baseball players, basketball players, tennis players, soccer players, toddlers, and dogs. These public spaces, paid for with public funds, address the recreational and fitness goals of the healthy public.
I visualize a free and accessible outdoor space designed for all citizens. And as Frederick ages, and the incidence of disease and disability increases, there will need to be shift in the decision-making process regarding the best use of park funds.
I don’t think there should come a time when a person ages out of the park system. And a park for older adults shouldn’t evoke visions of an elderly man with a newspaper feeding pigeons from a park bench.
In my mind, a senior-focused park will encourage vitality, strength, wellness, and community. It will address (from a therapeutic perspective) sensory integration, movement, proprioception, learning, and exercise (SIMPLE). It will be a gathering place for people who want to take control over their circumstances, and commiserate on the challenges of aging and caregiving.
Although a senior park in Frederick would be unique to Maryland, the concept of senior-focused parks is not a brand new idea. Parks with senior-friendly features already exist with impressive popularity in Europe and Asia, and are finally catching on in the United States.
I want to initiate a culture change in Frederick. I want to provide opportunities for people to be accountable for their own health. I want the infrastructure of the community to support and enable its citizens to have a better quality of life.
I want to put the words of Socrates to the test — ‘The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.’
Show your support for a senior park in Frederick by sending supportive emails to the city’s deputy director of parks and recreation, Roelkey Myers – Click here to email him. Follow our progress on The Baker Beacon, The BRG Facebook page or searching #simple4seniors.