Walking is good for all of us. It stretches our muscles, is a form of physical exercise which can reduce the risk of preventable illnesses, and it can alleviate stress symptoms. For older adults it should be an easy and accessible way of being active, but all too often this isn’t the case.
The state of our streets can make it hard for the less able of us to get out and about on foot. This is especially the case for older adults who may be suffering from mobility issues and this can lead to serious problems. We know that older adults can suffer from social isolation and – according to current research from Sport England – the older we get, the less exercise we do. Neither social isolation or sustained periods of inactivity are good for our health. The more frequently these barriers are experienced, the worse individuals’ confidence can get, and we’ve seen this lead to some older adults barely leave the house or exercise at all.
Promoting walking and improving the walking environment for older adults is a key way to overcome current and future public health issues associated with our ageing population.
For years, Living Streets have worked with community groups to help encourage older adults to walk more as part of age-appropriate groups and to tell us how their streets could be improved to make walking easier for them.
Our Streets Apart project in Redbridge between 2017 and 2019 involved community groups in housing estates, care homes, and fitness-focused community help groups. It involved arranged led walks from our project coordinator, training for Walk Leaders to leave a legacy in the area, and Community Streets Audits, which looked at the local walking environment.
The impact we had through the project was huge. We did four Community Route Audits with older adults and made recommendations to the council from them. This successfully resulted in traffic calming measures being installed in certain areas, hedges being cut back, removal of litter and improved street maintenance.
This, along with led walks gave us these results: 94% of older adults were more physically active, 89% felt an improvement in their mental health and 86% felt more connected to their local community after our interventions.
Although important for the community as a whole, the project also had a positive effect on individuals. Barkingside resident, Victoria, who is 72, took part in six of our led walks. When she started, she walked just one circuit of the park as she had recently had a knee replacement, but by the end of the project she walked six circuits of the park. This led her to walk more to the shops, library and to visit friends in the area. She says it’s helped her to keep active and means she gets to talk to people. She’s now become a local volunteer, so she can lead walks for all ages in her local community.
From the project we’ve learnt more about how to create Age-friendly streets, which relates closely to Age UK London’s aim to make London an Age-friendly City. If we look at the WHO’s guidelines for an Age-friendly City, we can see that our work related closely to the theme of Outdoor Spaces & Public Buildings which advises several key steps for making a city’s environment more Age-friendly:
- Engage with older adults – they know what works best for them;
- Footway condition is crucial – trip hazards are a big problem for older adults
- Time and places to cross are important – older adults often need longer to cross the road
- A well placed bench can make all the difference
- Improving aesthetics – makes it more likely for anyone to walk
- Public transport connections – these are likely to encourage more walking stages for longer journeys.