By Leah Wyatt
Mobility is critical to our health and well-being, especially as we age. How can we ensure that older adults are able to remain active despite difficulties they may face in attempting to do so? Dr. Dori Rosenberg of Seattle’s Group Health Research Institute, a public-interest research center, has conducted extensive research into the promotion of physical activity. She has unearthed valuable insights into what communities can do to help older adults maintain mobility and, in Dr. Rosenberg’s words, “get to places that are important to them.”
Dr. Rosenberg’s focus is promoting healthy aging: her work has explored solutions to support walking and physical activity in those with impairments and conditions including arthritis, helping them become more physically active. Dr. Rosenberg’s research examines the multitude of factors that can affect walking, including social factors and the built environment: are these influences set up to facilitate mobility, or are they acting as barriers?
Of note, she was recently involved in a project that partnered with Walk San Diego. The project sought to promote walking among residents of retirement communities and included individual coaching, group meetings, and site activities. One of the activities taught residents how to advocate for changes to their local area to support their mobility needs. For example, one site worked with the city to increase time allotted at a main intersection so that the older residents could more easily cross the street to access local businesses.
According to Dr. Rosenberg, several elements can impede physical activity among older adults. For one, some people live in areas that simply aren’t walkable, in which case elder-friendly transportation is an important way to connect older adults to facilities where they can be active. Dr. Rosenberg also points to social barriers, including stigma around mobility devices like walkers and canes that can actually support independent mobility and physical activity if people are willing to use them.
Dr. Rosenberg points to several ways our built environment can enhance mobility. Having suitable places to sit and rest, including benches, and adequate shelter from the elements, is key. Ensuring infrastructure like sidewalks and curb cuts are in good condition is also important to accessibility, as are safe road crossings. She says the built environment plays a critical role in allowing people to stay engaged and active as they get older, and older people with mobility limitations that live in supportive environments remain far more active than those who do not.
So how is Seattle doing, and what could we be doing better for ensuring mobility among older adults? Dr. Rosenberg notes that Seattle has a generally progressive attitude, as well as good pockets of walkability, but also several environmental challenges like rain, hills, and trees whose roots compromise our sidewalks. She also sees transit as a significant issue here, noting that our bus system can be challenging to navigate for older adults with mobility limitations.
What’s next for Dr. Rosenberg and her work to enhance public health? Right now, she’s developing programs that can help older adults, particularly those with mobility limitations, access public transit. Another important goal is to create inclusive public health physical activity programs that can help all older adults, including those with chronic conditions or mobility limitations, to maintain their functioning so they can stay mobile. All told, Dr. Rosenberg says public health research has traditionally been siloed, and public health projects need to approach mobility issues holistically to best enhance quality of life for older citizens.