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Never Too Old to Play: Playgrounds for the Elderly

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Most grandparents will be well-acquainted with the feeling of watching their young grandchildren race around on swings and roundabouts at the local park as they sit rather idly on a nearby bench.

But soon, this could be the other way around. Playgrounds that are designed specifically for the elderly are springing up all over the world. In a matter of years, it could be the children sat twiddling their thumbs and watching on as their grandparents have fun and exercise.

This may seem like a laughable idea, but rest assured, these senior playgrounds do not follow the typical swing-slide set up of your typical child’s play area. Instead, they’re full of low-impact machines and equipment that’s specifically built to exercise older limbs and muscles. The idea is to promote flexibility, balance, and coordination among an aging population, bringing them outdoors to meet people and make friends in the local area.

Senior playgrounds originate in China. They came into being over two decades ago after a national decree mandating fitness programs for all ages. Since then, they’ve sprung up in cities all over the world, proving especially beneficial in the UK, Finland, Japan, Germany, Canada and Spain, where more than 40% of the population will be over 65 by 2050. Barcelona has the most senior playgrounds by far, now boasting now more than 300 installations.

Just like children’s playgrounds, these areas for the elderly are meant to be fun. As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing”.

Play is the best way to encourage older people to take risks and push themselves outside of their physical comfort zones. Even a few hours a week of walking or exercising on a strider, leg press or recumbent bicycle will allow older people to gradually extend their capabilities and encourage them to start feeling differently about themselves.

Must Have Play are the first American company to design wellness playgrounds specifically for seniors. Their president Michael Cohen spoke on the light-hearted nature of senior playgrounds, explaining that “If you make it playful, people will enjoy themselves. It won’t feel like a workout, and they’ll want to come back”.

For years. doctors have been urging their older patients to undergo light exercise on a regular basis, especially those suffering from heart conditions, diabetes and obesity. But attempts on the behalf of OAP’s to adapt a new lifestyle have been particularly low.

Many over-60s are reluctant to join fitness clubs, namely because they haven’t grown up with modern-style gyms and are often unsure of how to work the equipment. Many older people have also admitted to feeling excluded by the atmosphere of serious training in these facilities, not to mention being surrounded by super-fit bodies dressed in close-fitting gym outfits. Taking all this into account, it’s unsurprising that OAPs have tended to shudder and stay away from modern gyms.

Senior playgrounds are different. They offer a relaxed and non-competitive atmosphere where everyone else using the equipment is also over 60. The machines designed to look as unthreatening as possible with their chunky structures and bright colours, resembling giant versions of children’s play equipment. They can be used with ordinary clothes and shoes, and they’re recommended for patients who are unfit as well as those recovering from major surgeries. The benefits of senior playgrounds are innumerable, so why aren’t we building more of them?