A systematic review of older people’s sensory engagement with nature

This systematic review has synthesised the qualitative research evidence about how older people, including those living with dementia, describe their sensory engagement with the natural world.

It has been completed in collaboration with colleagues from the Sensory Trust (Alexandra Wagstaffe) and PenCLAHRC (Simon Briscoe) and has received funding to translate its findings into training documentation, read more here.

The findings describe a series of interlocking themes related to older people’s sensory engagement with nature and how they seek to enhance their experiences.

This engagement takes place in several ways, in the form of ‘doing’ in nature; walking, climbing and gardening for example, or simply ‘being’ in nature; such as sitting, and drinking coffee. It also emerged that people connect with nature through watching birds, scenting plants and hearing wildlife despite being inside – such as in a care home.

The research has found that older people derive considerable enjoyment from viewing nature and ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in nature, which has a positive impact on their wellbeing and quality of life.

Their sensory experiences are important for making them feel connected, a part of ‘ordinary life’, and that they belong to the wider world, factors which also enhance their wellbeing.

From the evidence collected in this review, it is clear that older people living in the community were more in control of their surroundings than those living in nursing and residential care, and could adapt both their practices and environment to enable access to the outdoors.

Specifically within residential and nursing care, staff commitment and support is essential for enabling residents to engage with the natural environment. The need for a better understanding of the reasons for limiting garden accessibility in the these settings has already been identified and is essential if older residents’ sensory experiences are to be enhanced.

The study concludes that the topic of older people’s sensory engagement with nature is currently under-researched and calls for high quality qualitative research that combines traditional qualitative methods with more creative approaches such as walking interviews.

This study is registered with Prospero, number CRD42015020736