Aging Playfully is the first research project to extensively examine older adult play and the built environment. The project is led by Dr. Maxwell Hartt and funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and Queen’s University.
The goals of the Aging Playfully project are to develop a conceptual framework and practical guidelines of older adult play, analyze the (in)equitable spatial distribution of play infrastructures, determine the political and social acceptability and feasibility of future older adult play interventions, and develop recommendations for planning and public health policy.
Keep reading to learn more about why older adults, why play, and where we will be undertaking the research (spoiler: Victoria, BC).
Why Older Adults?
Loneliness is considered more harmful to human health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Older adults are especially susceptible to loneliness as they are more likely than any other age group to live alone, be widowed, not participate in the workforce, and have smaller social networks. As people age, their social, cognitive, and physical worlds tend to shrink. And as life spaces grow smaller, the immediate neighbourhood and local built environment play increasingly important roles in facilitating or impeding social isolation and loneliness.
Unfortunately, Canada may be facing an enormous surge in loneliness: it has both the world’s largest proportion of aging “baby boomers” and the world’s most suburban, least supportive built environment. The combination of a rapidly aging population and an overwhelmingly detached, car-dependent built environment is problematic. The increased social isolation and loneliness associated with the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbates the issue. Without timely and targeted intervention, older adult loneliness will increase. And with increased loneliness comes depression, poor cardiovascular health, reduced cognitive function, and even premature mortality.
One way to support older adults and to create a truly age-friendly society is through one of human nature’s simplest and most universal behaviours: play. Play is almost exclusively considered to be the activity of children, but why? Play improves physical and mental health, strengthens social cohesion, and increases sense of belonging. Play has the potential to address many of the physical and mental challenges that can come with aging while simultaneously countering social isolation and loneliness.
The notion that play improves our mental and physical health is not new. However, play has only recently been recognized as an urban design consideration capable of shaping and improving our daily movements, interactions, and experiences. Within the urban planning and design context, play infrastructure can be thought of as additions to the urban form that provide an alternative to conventional use by inspiring happiness and playful interaction. Public, playful space is a product of human intent and invention and a vital component in the theatre of play. Well designed public space has the power to completely change the experience of an encounter or action by changing the affective conditions. Simply put, the design of public space can cultivate or suppress play.
The Aging Playfully project will focus on the case study of Victoria, British Columbia. Victoria is one of Canada’s demographically oldest cities. Generally, Canada’s geography of aging is characterized by older rural and younger urban areas. Victoria is an outlier. In 2020, the average age of Victoria’s residents was 44 years old – higher than Canadian urban average (40.5), the national average (41.4), and even the Canadian rural average (43.4). As of 2019, older adults, defined as those aged 65 and above, made up 21.4% of Victoria’s population. By 2041, the proportion of older adults will grow to 28.8%.
Although Victoria’s relatively mild climate, coastal location, and local amenities are considered well suited to an older population, there are still issues of older adult social isolation and loneliness. Approximately 1 in 5 older adults in Victoria lack a sense of belonging to their local community. A slightly higher proportion (22%) perceived their mental health to be fair or poor. And more than 35% of older Victorians do not reach minimum recommendations for weekly physical activity. Additional play infrastructures targeted at older adults could improve the quality of life of older adults in Victoria and set best practices for other municipalities to follow.