Playgrounds for Elders: A Great Idea with a Horrible Name

Several years ago, I visited my great aunt who had recently moved into a nursing home. I was accompanied by my father and uncle, neither of which was very, um, enthusiastic about the potential indignities of long-term care.

As we wound our way through the old hallways, we found we could walk through the dining room as a short cut to my great aunt’s room. It wasn’t meal time, but apparently it was activity time, for there was a group of residents hunched around a table with an activity assistant. We glanced over to see what they were up to.

Amid a pile of construction paper remnants, they were cutting out Christmas-related objects. The residents looked semi-aware of their progress while the assistant told them how cute their creations would look in their rooms.

I heard something akin to a groan come out of my uncle. I turned around just in time to hear him whisper to my dad, “If I end up in one of these places, I’m not cutting out any f*&^ing snowmen.”

Amen, Uncle Brian.

You see, there’s nothing wrong with offering activities that match an older person’s abilities and interests. But hey, they’re not children. Please don’t treat them that way.

(c) Linden Laserna
© Linden Laserna

Which brings me to my current discontent – my discovery of the phrase, “playgrounds for elders.” That’s right, folks, bring your old relatives to their very own playground where they can ride the fake ponies and fight over the swings!

It turns out that playgrounds for elders have been around for almost 20 years, mostly in other countries, and were developed as a response to a need for better outdoor fitness opportunities for older adults (a good idea in itself). Luckily, the ones I’ve read about don’t seem as bad as I had feared. Yes, they have swings and see-saws, but they also have walking paths, gardens, and adult exercise equipment. My beef is partially with the design (fewer childish elements, please) and completely with the name.

Let me ask you something. When you hear the phrase, “playgrounds for elders,” what comes to mind? Do you imagine seniors engaging in outdoor activities as the wise, valuable, and mature human beings they are, or do you think, “How cute! They can wear their galoshes with the duckies on them because it might be muddy under the jungle gym!”

As caregivers, you might not succumb to these types of stereotypes, because caregiving often engenders a respect for the aged not known among the general public. But for the masses, using the term “playgrounds for elders” is probably the worst thing marketers can do if we are ever going to eradicate ageism and raise the bar of eldercare.

How about something like “fitness parks for elders”? That sounds a lot more dignified to me.

“Playgrounds for elders” evokes one more memory that has haunted me since I conducted my doctoral research on the moral ecology of nursing homes. I interviewed a resident, whom I will call Harriett, who had a Ph.D. in art history and was an accomplished painter. She now had multiple sclerosis and could no longer walk, though she still had use of her arms and hands. The staff kept urging her to attend the craft sessions for dementia residents (please note that she did not have dementia) because “we heard you liked arts and crafts and stuff.” As Harriett told me with tears in her eyes, “I don’t ‘like arts and crafts and stuff’ – I’m an artist. I don’t want to paste macaroni to a paper plate or complete a paint-by-numbers portrait of Elvis.”

Amen, Harriett. And I hope you never had to cut out any f*&^ing snowmen, either.

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    It was surprising that there are elders playgrounds and I think equipments and cycling activities in these playground for elders will make them healthy.
    outdoor playground equipment

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