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Senior citizen science: older people urged to advocate for changes to built environment

Academics have urged older people to speak up about potential improvements to the built environment that will promote healthy ageing, and say nurses have an important role to play in the process.

Dr Anthony Tuckett from The University of Queensland’s School of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work said the built environment has a powerful impact on the health of older people and their ability to age well.

“We live in a moment in history where there are greater numbers of older people than younger people and, consequently, this risks an increased number of wheelie-walkers, motorised scooters and slower-paced older people,” Tuckett said.

“With this demographic shift, policy makers haven’t been able to adapt quickly enough to cater for the changes required among our built environments.”

A promising strategy to deal with this issue is encouraging citizen science among Australia’s older population, he said. This would involve older adults taking an active role in documenting features of their environment that help or hinder healthy living and then voicing them to policy makers to promote change.

Tuckett led a literature review examining the ‘Our Voice’ framework, developed by Dr Abbey King and colleagues at Stanford University. Beginning with neighborhood walks, the program encourages citizen scientists to discover aspects of their community that impact healthy living, discuss their findings with other citizen scientists, advocate for local improvements and change communities for the better.

The University of Queensland study, which was published online in the International Journal of Older People Nursing, suggested ways gerontological nurses, clinicians and scholars could encourage citizen science and support policies and programs that promote healthy environments for older people.

Tuckett said research on the built environment, physical activity and the associated health benefits for older people is well documented, however it isn’t broadly used by gerontological nurses.

“We hope the review will motivate and encourage gerontological nurses, whether they are community nurses or residential aged care nurses, to take a fresh look at the communities in which they work, and broaden their approach to promoting health and providing care for older people.

“A two-pronged approach is required where gerontological nurses need to be educated about the benefits of citizen science and how they can encourage it among the groups they work in; and older people themselves need to be educated, so they are armed with the necessary information and tools to take action.

“For example we need to design streetscapes that are safe and wide enough for older people to walk in.

“These are ‘age-friendly environments’ which will ultimately soften the impact of disability onset and poor health associated with ageing.”

Tuckett said it’s vitally important that public policies are reviewed through a lens of healthy ageing and take into account the perspectives and experiences of older people.

“By adopting the ‘Our Voice’ approach it will simply be better in the long run for older people and society.”

Click below to watch a video about Our Voice from the Stanford team.

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