"The residents who choose to live at Seabrook feel like they're in the middle of a forest preserve!" exclaims Pat Batten, resident services coordinator at The Seabrook of Hilton Head, located on the beautiful Hilton Head Island, S.C.

The Seabrook Of Hilton Head takes advantage of its beautiful location to give residents easy access to the beach or to the nearby Sea Pines Wildlife Preserve. But even in less picturesque surroundings, with a little creativity any provider can facilitate residents' enjoyment of nearby parks or city neighborhoods.

They may love their spectacular surroundings, abutting a wildlife preserve, but Seabrook's 260 seniors maintain mainly indoor lifestyles. "Our residents are not utilizing the outdoors as much as we would like. So we're trying, with our new long term landscaping plan, to make outdoor activity more accessible and appealing," says Robert Lee, executive director.

He's not alone. Across the country, whether in stunning scenery or simple settings, aging services providers are hoping innovative open air designs will bring both physical and psychological advantages. The exercise benefits of an inviting walking path are obvious. Less visible but equally important are the added chances to socialize, and to synthesize more vitamin D, which is commonly deficient among seniors.

Here are some outdoor approaches that subtly, yet effectively, promote healthier, happier lives for residents, and even afford a "natural" marketing advantage.

Best Foot Forward
Walking trails are increasingly popular for seniors. For Presbyterian Home at Meadow Lakes, Hightstown, N.J., a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant funded a new master plan for the community's trails. The grant covers outreach and education for both residents and staff on the benefits of walking daily, for at least 30 minutes.

Presbyterian Home's landscape architect, John Paul Carman of Design For Generations, says, "We've tried to create different pathways encompassing all areas of the campus, giving people a range of visual opportunities so they won't get bored. The more opportunities to experience nature, and the more interesting, the more they'll utilize." Easy to create, a walking trail is "a hit on all levels: cost, exercise, fitness and interest ," Carman maintains. "When you're out on a path, it's always changing, because nature changes. Seeing butterflies and hummingbirds takes your mind off any pains".

Carman arranged meetings to hear residents' priorities, which included: smoother paths, away from cars; maps showing interesting sites on campus; longer walkways; paths in scenic areas (e.g., the lakefront); more attractive places to walk outside the buildings. "Getting residents involved was a big part. They adopted the project, named themselves the Meadow Walkers, assessed existing trails, and helped with the master plan."

The new wellness trail, designed with varied walking surfaces, extends into Meadow Lakes' natural areas. It links into a lake trail and pre-existing woods and perimeter trails. In one section, colored concrete cuts down on glare caused by regular concrete, which is difficult for older eyes. Other segments use gravel or mulch. To encourage residents to use it, Meadow Lakes is planning summer concerts and cocktail parties to take place along the trail.

"The trail master plan really became a springboard for varied outdoor activities, including bird watching, a group working on a tree map/directory, and general interest in trail clean up," reports Sharon Eldridge, executive director. Even before completion, she says, the wellness loop is "very much a work in progress, but encourages a lot of active residents interested in the outdoors."

Big Wheel On Campus
La Posada at Park Centre, Green Valley, Ariz., actively encourages bike riding. "Our premise is that any amount of incremental exercise is a benefit. We bought a dozen big three-wheelers, and put them in front of every main building, with a helmet in each bike's basket," explains Lisa Israel, executive director. People who don't ride much, or well, can simply pedal to any other building and leave the bike. They can also call for the "tram" that circles the hundred-acre campus.

"The bikes are very popular! So far, no one's fallen off," says Israel. (A designated bike purchase fund accepts donations.) Now, La Posada is collaborating with the town of Green Valley, half a mile away, on a bike/golf cart path to connect them. "Lots of our residents use motorized golf carts, but don't feel safe going into town on the regular road. As they improve municipal streets here, we're working with town officials, and contributing funds toward a separate, designated new lane for bikes.

Going for the Greens
When River Landing at Sandy Ridge bought its property in High Point, N.C., it included an 18 hole golf course. River Landing downsized it to a regulation nine hole course, wrapping around the residences. Conversion was inexpensive, requiring only a new irrigation system and relocation of one hole. "Our first thought was to keep it private, just for residents," recalls Tom Smith, executive director. On weekdays, about 50 residents play regularly, paying only modest golf cart fees.

The course is now open to the public and to community groups (high school tournaments, church golfing events, etc.) at nominal fees. "We try to make it a community course," says Smith. Allowing fee paying golfers helps cover maintenance costs (currently about $250,000 annually), "and spreads the word that we're open to the public."

For the 330 residents, the well maintained 3,000-yard golf course offers something for nearly everyone, including mixers, cook outs, and golf tournaments. "It's absolutely a selling point for new residents, even those who don't play," Smith says. "Being on or near a golf course is a nice, countrified feeling. Lots of people want a golf course view."

If you don't have space or budget for a regulation golf course, consider a putting green, which requires 400 to 500 square feet. Often, sponsors or donors will contribute. For a small putting green, a likely price range is $25,000 to $35,000, according to John Langdon, an architect with Freeman White in Charlotte, N.C. "If you're reloading your facility, and have some exterior space on your campus, it's pretty easy to put one in," he notes. Retrofitting an existing site may require some grading, which carries a modest cost.

Chipping greens need three times the space of a putting green. One more option is available: he's never been asked to do it, but "miniature golf would be a great idea," says Langdon. "It wouldn't require much land, if you have the recreational space to allocate."

The Urban Outdoors
Even in a built-up big city, the right setting can lure seniors outside. Judson Manor in Cleveland, Ohio turned the top of its 1923 building, a former hotel, into an inviting rooftop space, with approximately 4,850 square feet. Independent living residents walk its perimeter for exercise (with great skyline and water views); recently added concrete pavers flatten the surface for easy ambling. In warm weather, people come to watch a sunset over the lagoon, or sip a glass of wine before dinner. Outdoor breakfasts are served in summer.

"It's very popular with residents; it's their space," says Lucy Fesler, resident life coordinator. "They can go up and hang out whenever they want. People who subscribed to the Cleveland Orchestra, and are too frail to go now, like to take the elevator to the roof and see the whole University Circle arts complex. It helps them feel they're still part of Cleveland's cultural life." Residents can safely stand near the shoulder high brick wall.

From May to September, a terrace on the more sheltered second floor of Judson's assisted living facility is used frequently. "We have umbrella tables because wind is not a problem. To get residents out as often as possible, we hold a number of parties and barbecues there for them," Fesler notes.

Conducive Courtyards
In senior communities, often bland outdoor courtyard space can be a vital area, Langdon asserts. "Many of our facilities have buildings turning toward one another. We'll try to create points of interest throughout a courtyard, for less active residents who need a reason to walk around. For those people who will go outside only because it's a nice day, we spend design time and money creating these points so that residents will use them as an activity area."

FreemanWhite tries to plan each courtyard to subtly become a walking area that leads to a "natural setting." Langdon often incorporates water features, such as plantings, a small pond or fountains and, especially, benches. "That gives people a place to sit and talk to someone for a few minutes, then get up and walk on to another point of interest," he explains.

Easy Outdoor Activities
Some outdoor enticements require little investment or staff assistance. At La Posada, set in a pecan orchard, "We want to do things that create interest in nature. To encourage walking, we took our map, spelled out distances between different spots, and posted them everywhere. Choose how far you want to walk, then pick a loop or path for that exact distance," says Israel. Two residents formed a "Trailblazers" group for on-campus hikes of up to two miles. Others organized their own bird watching group.

At the edge of the campus, La Posada fenced off an area, dubbed "Bark Park," where seniors can let their dogs run free each morning, socializing at "Doggie Klatsch" while pets play. "Resident donations made this happen. It creates a good reason for people to walk, get outside, and get to know each other," Israel notes. Names of each donor's dog appear on an honor-roll plaque.

The low-cost potato launcher was a surprise. A resident built a simple "pipe cannon," then gathered a group to bring their own potatoes and see how far they'll fly. "At first they tried not to let me see them doing it," recalls Israel, who loves the low maintenance: "no need to pick anything up!"

Seabrook's imminent plan includes courts for horseshoes and shuffleboard, which need a space of at least 10 feet by 60 feet. Spaces for bocce ball will follow later.

Generating Ideas for Your Site
Encourage residents to express any outdoor interest. The more involved they feel in an idea, the likelier they are to participate, or even help facilitate it. A La Posada resident donated an astronomical observatory from his former home, for group stargazing in clear Arizona skies. Another resident's son asked if he could build, then donate, a bat house. La Posada accepted, placing it on a 20-foot path, along the main walking path, near the dog run. "We'll start with one, to make sure no one has a problem with it. It's for conservation, and gives bats a place to go so they don't hide under eaves' " says Israel.

One Seabrook resident, eager to encourage outdoor activities, made a generous donation toward the community's long-term landscaping. Fifteen years ago, Seabrook seniors suggested a putting green, then raised the funds to install one at the back of the property. Nestled beneath trees to block the Carolina sun, it's frequently used.
Be receptive to suggestions. "I'm so proud of the things that have just grown, when you give the residents freedom" Israel observes. "I haven't heard of a bad idea yet!"

Look Beyond Your Borders
Creatively "designing" site specific outdoor programs to take advantage of nearby town or neighborhood facilities can provide inexpensive, fresh activities. At Vista Del Monte Retirement Community, Santa Barbara, Calif., a local park inspired Peggy Buchanan, director of fitness, aquatics and physical therapy, to devise Not Just a "Walk In the Park." Seniors are led, through push-ups on picnic tables, squats at the barbecue pits, "step ups" on stadium bleachers, stretches atop the amphitheater, and "swinging” abdominal workouts. "Some of them haven't been on a swing in 60 years,” Buchanan muses.

For the popular "Walk On the Wild Side," Buchanan arranged to bring her group to the local zoo one hour before opening time, three mornings a week. "We do different exercises near each animal: balance work with flamingoes, push-ups with gorillas, stretches with giraffes. Then we walk the zoo's different uphill and downhill trails. We even teach people how to fall, on their soft lawn.”

With the Atlantic Ocean a quarter-mile down the road, The Seabrook of Hilton Head offers residents the option of being dropped off at the shore after each weekly van shopping trip. They walk the long beach on their own, and meet their van an hour later at a designated pick-up point (as do Vista Del Monte groups).

Carol Milano, a New York based freelance writer, covers long term care and other health care subjects.


The Seabrook of Hilton Head, Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Contact: Robert Lee, executive director, roblee@hargraycom or (843) 842 3747.
Presbyterian Home at Meadow Lakes, Hightstown, N.J.
Contact: Sharon Eldridge, executive director,
seldridge@phsnet org or (609) 426 6801
La Posada at Park Centre, Green Valley, Ariz.
Contact: Lisa Israel, executive director, #sa@1aposadagv com or (520) 648 8100.
River Landing at Sandy Ridge, High Point, N.C.
Contact: Tom Smith, executive director, tsmith@dverlandingsrorg or (336) 668 4900.
Judson Manor, Cleveland, Ohio
Contact: Lucy Fesler, resident life coordinator, (216) 791 2314.
Vista Be[ Monte Retirement Community, Santa Barbara, Calif.
Contact: Peggy Buchanan, director of fitness, aquatics and physical therapy, pbuchanan@frontporch.net or (805) 687 0793.
Design for Generations, Medford, N.J.
Contact: John Paul Carman, president, (609) 953 5881.
FreemanWhite, Charlotte, N.C.
Contact: John Langdon, AIA, (704) 586 2388.


Many of these articles appear on the publication's website, which are often password-protected or members-only. For your convenience, I've gathered them on my own website.