Rhiannon Hardiman at Living Streets Cymru and Heléna Herklots CBE, the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales, examine how walking can help older adults to build back confidence in a post-lockdown world.
The past twelve months or so have brought great change to our daily lives, and in preventing the spread of Covid-19, the biggest impact for many has been the need to stay indoors and reduce contact with others.
But being confined to our own homes over such a long period has taken its toll, especially on older people. It’s these people, who are the most vulnerable, who have also been the most isolated.
Older adults and people with underlying health conditions have been advised to shield, to self-isolate from friends, family and the support services that they would usually rely on.
Not only has this led to an increase in loneliness and social isolation in our older population, but it has also affected the confidence of many to step back out into the world.
In 2020, a few months into the lockdown, the Older People’s Commissioner published a report on the impact of the pandemic on older people in Wales which revealed that many found themselves in extremely difficult circumstances.
The experience has not only left people feeling worried about the future, but they have also lost confidence in leaving their homes.
Living Streets promotes walking as a way to reconnect with our local neighbourhoods and think it should be at the heart of Covid recovery.
“Feelings of loneliness and isolation can themselves be a cause of ill health as they can lead to physical inactivity or negative behaviours such as smoking and drinking.”
We know that millions of people have rediscovered walking during the lockdown, but the pandemic has revealed that too many streets are not fit for purpose, exposing the stark inequalities faced in local communities and the loneliness experienced by older adults.
The barriers faced by older people have become more complex as a result of the lockdown. For Living Streets, part of the problem has been the need to deliver support services remotely, overcoming issues with digital inclusion and confidence.
Personal motivation to take physical exercise has also declined and people are reporting that their fitness has reduced or that they have gained weight, which can make it more difficult to be active.
The outgoing Welsh Government’s Connected Communities identifies several triggers for the onset of loneliness and social isolation, the majority of which can be more common in later life, for example, bereavement, retiring from work, taking on caring responsibilities (most likely between the ages of 50-64), experiencing ill health or giving up driving a car.
The report is also clear that feelings of loneliness and isolation can themselves be a cause of ill health as they can lead to physical inactivity or negative behaviours such as smoking and drinking.
These factors increase the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure and there is further evidence noted of links to depression, low self-esteem and in some cases, the onset of dementia, conditions already associated with older age.
“Supporting more people to get out walking on their local streets will be a big part of the solution to re-building our communities.”
Herklots stresses how important it is that, as we come out of lockdown, we strengthen our communities to enable older adults to reconnect with neighbours, friends and services.
A key part of this is to ensure that the physical environment provides the space to maintain safe social distancing while also supporting older people to walk in their local community.
This requires more seating to allow people to rest along the way, access to toilets and wide pavements that are free from clutter and parked cars.
Herklots’ report also calls for more work to be done to engage older people in auditing their local streets and helping to identify some of those barriers. This is something that Living Streets advocates for in its work with older people across the UK.
The Cyfeillion Cerdded Cymru – Walking Friends Wales project started in 2019 and is funded by the Healthy & Active Fund, a partnership between Welsh Government, Sport Wales and Public Health Wales.
The project aims to engage with adults over 50 who face barriers to walking in their everyday lives, supporting them back into regular walking and ensuring that they are able to voice their concerns about the streets in their local area.
One group identified that seating had been removed due to fears of anti-social behaviour. Such concerns can have implications for other people in the community such as older adults who then find it difficult to walk any distance as they are unable to stop and rest.
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According to the Chief Medical Officers’ Guidelines, regular physical exercise as we get older contributes to the key determinants of healthy ageing such as being in control of your own wellbeing, having good physical and mental function and improved social contact.
Specifically, the guidelines find that physical activity contributes to reducing loneliness and social isolation.
Supporting more people to get out walking on their local streets will be a big part of the solution to re-building our communities as we come out of lockdown.
Projects like Walking Friends Wales can help people at an individual level to address their motivation to become more physically active and improve their confidence and stamina to build up their level of physical activity closer to the recommended levels.
Sheila took part in the project before the lockdown began and described how walking with her group made her feel “so much happier and healthier”.
Sheila also found the added benefit of friendship with another lady in the group who she has been able to keep in touch with during the lockdown.
But projects such as Walking Friends can only do so much. It is essential that the right improvements are made to our street environments.
“They share the same principle: for neighbourhood streets which enable healthy and active lifestyles for people, irrespective of their age.”
With the recent Senedd elections, Living Streets outlined a very clear call to the next Welsh Government, in its Manifesto for Walking, that all people on foot should feel relaxed and safe.
This means having the confidence that there will be safe places to cross the road, that pavements won’t be full of clutter or parked cars and that vehicles slow down when there are people around.
If there is one thing that both Living Streets and the Older People’s Commissioner would like to see, it is a neighbourhood-wide approach to creating communities that work for everybody.
For Herklots, this is a network of Age-friendly Communities, and for Hardiman, it is a network of Low-traffic Neighbourhoods. They share the same principle: for neighbourhood streets which enable healthy and active lifestyles for people, irrespective of their age.
These are communities where the barriers that prevent people from choosing walking for their everyday journeys have been removed, creating a safe and relaxed space for people to move around their local streets.
Concepts like these are growing in popularity and will create a step-change in how we see and value our local communities and neighbours.
All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
Find out more about the Walking with older adults | Living Streets project here.
Find out more about the Older People’s Commissioner’s work here.