Jun 5th, 2019

A Breath of Fresh Air

sunlight and wellnessMore people than ever before spend the majority of their time indoors. According to one government estimate, the average American spends 90% of his or her life indoors, and this is even more true for seniors. The reasons are understandable. Increased isolation, decreased mobility and fear of falling are a few reasons some older adults may prefer to stay inside rather than venture outdoors. But there is a cost to this behavior including increased boredom and depression, decreased muscle strength and lowered vitamin D levels. The benefits of time spent outdoors are many.

The Benefits of Sunlight

In Spending Time Outdoors Is Good for You from Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Letter, several good reasons to increase time spent outdoors are explored:

More exercise. Time spent outdoors means less time in front of the television or laying in bed and more time walking and doing other things that put the body in motion.

Increased happiness. Light tends to elevate people’s mood, and the natural light from the sun is more associated with an improvement in mood than indoor light.

Faster healing. In one study, people recovering from spinal surgery experienced less pain and stress and took fewer pain medications when they were exposed to natural light. An older study showed that the view out the window (trees vs. a brick wall) helped recovery in the hospital.

Vitamin D levels rise. Sunlight hitting the skin begins a process that leads to the creation of vitamin D. Studies suggest that this vitamin helps fight certain conditions, from osteoporosis and cancer to depression and heart attacks.

In the 2015 Cleveland Clinic article, Some Sunlight May Benefit Your Health, If You’re Older, geriatrician Ronan Factor, MD is quoted as saying “Sunlight has hidden benefits. With its power to produce vitamin D, it protects against depression, insomnia, and an overactive immune system.” He goes on to say, “There are some links between sunlight exposure and improved muscle function, bone and cardiovascular health, improved mood – even improved cognitive function.”

Seniors receiving home care in their own homes are more likely to spend time outdoors than those whose care is provided in a facility. A research study, The Impact of Sunlight Exposure on the Health of Older Adults, reported on in PubMed, looked at the difference in exposure to sunlight between “institutionalized elderly” and their “non-institutionalized peers.”

“Several studies have shown that many elderly, especially those that reside in institutions, do not receive sufficient sunlight exposure. Institutionalized elderly tend to participate in indoor activities and spend significant periods of time alone and asleep in front of the television. In addition, factors such as poor health, environmental design, indoor/outdoor preference, and activity design may impact the access of institutionalized elderly to sunlight. Given this reality, adding a 15-minute outdoor period to our visits to clients or family members who live in facilities can provide a significant benefit.

Staying Safe in the Sun

While a moderate amount of sun exposure is good for you, the Cleveland Clinic article warns that there are some people who should limit their time in direct sunlight including those with:

  • A known history of skin cancer
  • Sun damaged skin/history of sunburns
  • Skin changes that are suspicious for skin cancer

Excessive time spent in direct sunlight can be dangerous for most people. Always remember to limit sun exposure and use sunscreen when you are out for extended periods, particularly during the middle of the day. Wearing sunglasses is also recommended.

There are so many losses associated with growing older, the outdoors should not be one of them. Author Amanda Jillson, of the Nashua Telegraph, writes in Benefits of fresh air and sunshine for senior citizens, “It’s important for seniors to continue enjoying outdoor activities they have done all their lives, as this helps them remain connected to the world around them. Multi-sensory activities can be especially helpful for improving verbal expressions, memory, and attention. Listening to the sounds of nature, touching plants, and smelling flowers are wonderful ways to engage the senses while enjoying nature.”

Sometimes barriers exist that make going outdoors challenging. Getting dressed appropriately for the weather, putting on sturdy shoes, convincing your loved one or client that they really will enjoy the fresh air and sunshine may not always be possible. At those times try suggesting that they sit by an open window and enjoy the fresh air. Or stay close to home by sitting on a patio, balcony or porch. Encourage an older adult to begin a routine such as a short daily walk to the mailbox. During the summer there are outdoor concerts, farmer’s markets and other warm-weather activities your family member or client may enjoy.

With your reassurance and the support of your arm, a cane, walker or even a wheelchair, nearly any senior can reclaim their enjoyment, and reap the benefits, of fresh air and sunshine.

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