Aging into Activity: Walking for Health, Safety in Older Adults

Did you know? The demographic makeup of the U.S is about to look very different in the next few decades. We already have one of the oldest populations in the world, and by 2035, adults 65+ will outnumber children in America. Now is the time to start planning for the services older adults will need so that aging is safe, healthy, and welcomed.

Sourced from the US Census, this graph shows the population of adults 65 and older surpassing the under 18 age group in 2035. By 2060, it's estimated there will be 95 million adults over 65 years old.

Rural and suburban areas are aging more rapidly than urban centers. In the image below, take a look at the areas getting darker blue here in Washington – the northeastern and southwestern counties, and especially the Olympic peninsula. Living in less densely populated areas can make accessing essential services, such as healthcare, food, and community supports, more difficult. And for people who do not or no longer drive, options outside of cars – like public transit – are more limited.

The number of adults 50 years and older are increasing more rapidly in rural and suburban areas than in urban areas. The graphic shows the change in concentration from 2000 to 2016.And yet, ensuring that this population can stay active and healthy is critical, as health issues become more common with age. Many symptoms of common chronic diseases can be prevented or lessened not just with access to healthcare, but with regular physical activity, social connections, and safe and healthy living environments.

In preparing for this increase in an older population, the majority of whom are moving to or living in rural and suburban areas and want to age in place, how do we provide the services and support to keep people healthy, safe, and fulfilled as they age? 

Walk With Ease

One way we’re working to answer this question is to partner with organizations across the state to build a system of walking programs that address some of the physical and social needs of older adults. In rural counties where community resources are concentrated in fewer areas, places like senior centers, rural health organizations, and county aging offices provide as many wrap-around services as possible to their older adult communities. Staff want programs that are proven to work, affordable, and adaptable to a variety of situations. 

That’s where Walk with Ease comes in. It’s evidence-based, which means it has been proven through rigorous studies to produce the intended health outcomes in participants who follow the program’s curriculum. Before COVID, it brought people together to walk in their communities, building up strength, mobility, and confidence in walking through the six week program. It also offered people the chance to connect with one another socially, an important benefit to an age group at risk of experiencing frequent social isolation. We’ve retooled it into a virtual class, which allows people to connect with their instructor and fellow classmates online, while committing to the three weekly walks on their own, or with people living in their household. 

A class like Walk with Ease works in suburban and rural areas because it does not take any special equipment or expensive training to implement. The virtual version of the class removes the transportation barrier by allowing participants to walk in their own neighborhoods. However, all the encouragement in the world doesn’t help when neighborhoods are not safe enough to walk in. The photos below show common examples of what suburban and rural streets might look like (although urban areas have work to do too!) The photo on the left doesn’t even look too bad until you consider someone with a walking device, walking alone, or in low light conditions, trying to make sure they’re seen by a vehicle with no sidewalks to separate them.

That’s why it’s important for all communities, whether urban or rural, to plan for safe walking conditions in their neighborhoods for people of all ages and abilities. We are about to host our fifth virtual Walk with Ease class and plan to continue partnering with communities across the state to support better health and safety for older adults through walking. It’s one of many ways to prepare for an aging population who deserve to be able to get around as easily as everyone else. 

For more information on Walk with Ease and to get a class started in your area, contact our Program Manager, Rachel Schaeffer at Rachel@feetfirst.org

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