Miriam Schupacheveci, 74, hasn't ventured into a Philadelphia park in years. There aren't enough bathrooms or security personnel to make her feel comfortable. And there are too few railings for her husband, who needs support when he walks.
"I'd like to" go to a park, said Schupacheveci, of Northeast Philadelphia, "but I don't think it's safe."
Philadelphia has one of the world's largest urban park systems. And, according to census data, the city has the highest proportion of people 65 and older of any of the 10 largest cities in the country.
Yet 73 percent of Philadelphians over 60 reported never using their neighborhood park in the previous year, according to data from Public Health Management Corp.'s 2008 Household Health Survey.
That troubles local advocates for seniors because of the benefits that public parks can provide for older adults. Being engaged and connected in the community is related to older adults' being more physically active and to the length of time that seniors want to stay in their homes, according to an analysis by Allen Glicksman, director of research and evaluation for the nonprofit Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.
Regular exercise can help seniors prevent falls, the leading cause of injury or death for people 65 and older. Other research from the 2008 survey showed that people with health limitations are less likely to use public recreation facilities. So even perceived risks to unsteady legs, such as uneven steps, rickety handrails and cracked sidewalks, could deter older adults from using parks, Glicksman said.
Hoping to close the gap, the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging has launched a citywide effort to make Philadelphia parks more "age-friendly." A draft checklist for senior-suitable parks includes amenities such as nonslip pavement, abundant shade and programming for all ages. The plan is to make the city's current and future parks more hospitable to seniors, said Kate Clark, a planner with the corporation, who is leading the effort.
As part of the initiative, Philadelphia's Parks and Recreation Department is using mapping technology to identify parks near senior centers and apply the age-friendly checklist there, said Sarah Low, director of spatial analysis and conservation planning. "Some parks could be perfectly age-friendly and still not be used by seniors because they're located in places where seniors aren't."
Parks near senior centers will be among the first transformed into age-friendly oases. "It's very exciting because there is a lot of momentum around looking at parks from an age-friendly perspective," Low said. "Nationwide, this is becoming a bigger issue because baby boomers are getting older and that population is becoming a real force."
With seniors expected to make up one-fifth of the American population by 2030, communities across the country are realizing the importance of designing parks to meet their needs, said Kathy Sykes, a senior adviser for the Aging Initiative in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In Albuquerque, N.M., a program encourages health providers to write prescriptions for park use. In New York City, free tennis, yoga and fitness walking classes for seniors are offered in city parks.
Officials from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said no current initiatives specifically call for making parks more usable for seniors.
"Philadelphia is definitely an ambassador for other communities to recognize the resource of their parks," said Sykes, who helped the Philadelphia Corporation on Aging prepare its initiative. "They can make them more of a resource when they invest in them and the age-friendly aspects."
Of course, some Philadelphia parks are already known to be senior-friendly. Many of the city's squares, including Rittenhouse Square and Franklin Square, are lush with shade trees and filled with benches for weary visitors, Clark said.
Pennypack Park is also popular among seniors, including Jay Lipschutz, 64, who bikes and walks there several times a week. "It's well-maintained," he said. "The only drawback that I've seen in the usage of Pennypack Park for older people is the lack of bathroom facilities."
Yet some city parks are sorely lacking, local seniors said. Corner-store owner Catalina Hunter, 60, a 15-year Hunting Park resident, said she had watched her community's 87-acre namesake space decline for a decade. "This is a park that was a little bit neglected," she said, citing litter on the grounds and insufficient lighting. Because many residents avoided the North Philadelphia park, Hunter said, seniors were left with few local options for activity and socializing. "Seniors have nothing around close by," she said.
The Fairmount Park Conservancy is working to bring safety and senior-related improvements to Hunting Park, said Meg Holscher, the conservancy's director of development. "Our parks are healthy and they're safe and they're used in the best manner possible when they are used by the communities that surround them," she said.
One area of age-friendly focus there is a community garden with raised beds. "If you're a senior or in a wheelchair, you're still able to garden with some ease," Holscher said. Other initiatives include park-wide lighting and reopening the concession building. "With 87 acres, you could easily spend a whole day there," she said. "But without having the ability to buy some water or a snack, I'm sure that deters quite a few people."
Hunter is eager to stake out a raised plot in the community garden and plant tomatoes, peppers, and herbs. The garden will be "part of the entertainment" for local seniors, she said. "You can have a garden, and you can have a group," Hunter said. "You can make a friend."
The announcement this month that Philadelphia will create 500 new acres of publicly accessible green space by 2015 means the focus on seniors will broaden.
Hank Gathers Recreation Center in North Philadelphia, for instance, will get more than 40 new trees, a shaded sitting area, and a community garden, said Michael DiBerardinis, commissioner of Parks and Recreation. That effort is for the entire community, he said, "but that does play to [the senior] audience."
Freelancer Christina Hernandez wrote this article for the Philadelphia Inquirer as part of her MetLife Foundation Journalists on Aging fellowship, in partnership with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. Photo by The Inquirer’s Laurence Kesterson.
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