“I watch the birds at my bird feeder,” one message said.
“I get my hands dirty planting in my garden,” said another.
“I walk my dog,” said a third answer.
These were typical responses, typed by family caregivers into chat boxes during numerous Zoom conferences, to a common question: “What’s the best way you’ve found to cope with the stress of the pandemic?” Others wrote about hiking or going to the park or gazing at sunsets. It didn’t matter whether these caregivers lived in leafy suburbs or congested cities. Like millions of other Americans who were similarly locked down at home, afraid of COVID-19, they’d turned to nature for support.
Nature offered them multiple comforts. During a time when attending special events, such as ballgames, concerts or weddings, was off-limits and even trips to the supermarket could seem risky, the sight of a bright blue sky, smell of cut grass and sounds of springtime birds were small pleasures to savor. After being cooped up in the house, taking a short walk around the neighborhood, even while wearing a mask, was literally a breath of fresh air. And though so much of their lives had been disrupted by uncertainty, the regular rhythms of nature provided the assurance that flowers would keep growing, trees would leaf out and the world would go on.
In recent years, social scientists have discovered what poets figured out centuries ago: Experiencing the beauty of natural settings and living things increases relaxation and emotional and physical well-being and decreases stress, worry and depression. On the basis of this research, different forms of “nature therapy,” which prescribes engaging with nature to improve mood and self-esteem, have been devised for different groups, including children, adolescents and older adults. For instance, in the early ’90s, physician and senior living innovator Bill Thomas first proposed putting parakeets and canaries in nursing homes to uplift the spirits and improve the health of otherwise lethargic residents. More recently, in countries such as the Netherlands and Norway, individuals with dementia have been attending day programs at “care farms” where tending farm animals has been found to give them a greater sense of purpose.
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Contact with nature can have many positive effects for both caregivers and their care recipients. But they often take the natural world for granted. How can they become more fully attuned to the great outdoors? Here are some ideas:
Unplug from screens
Television shows provide entertainment, including much-needed humor. Social media outlets, such as Facebook and other groups, can offer caregivers necessary information and support. But staring at screens, however riveting, is a poor replacement for encountering nature, with its capacity to awe and inspire. Power down your screens and look outside.
Shift your attention
For most caregivers and care recipients, immersed in care tasks, the natural world is as near as the other side of their windowpanes but far from their thoughts. The clouds, shrubs, squirrels and insects go largely unnoticed. The key to deriving greater benefit from nature is to intentionally increase awareness of it. How do the landscape and sky you see change colors from one season to the next? How quickly do the plants you walk past grow and bloom? How textured is the bark of the trees? How colorful are the birds? It takes concerted observation to take it all in.
Explore with others
Observing the natural world while sitting alone on a park bench can be bring a sense of peacefulness. But just as often, people share experiences of nature with others. Imagine strolling through a garden with care recipients, other caregivers or friends and watching the breeze make the flowers sway. Imagine planting a garden or even a window box with care recipients as a joint project. Appreciating beauty and wonder together brings people closer to each other.
Connect with something larger
For some family caregivers, greater awareness of nature leads to a deeper personal connection with the larger living world that surrounds us. That’s a world, shaped by the seasons, of amazing diversity and energy and continual striving to survive. That connection doesn’t make caregivers feel smaller and more helpless. To the contrary, it provides many of them with a heightened spiritual sense of being part of a natural order. Caregiving, too, doesn’t seem so overwhelming when caregivers see their challenging work as a vital piece of the living and striving and even beauty of this natural world.
Barry J. Jacobs, a clinical psychologist, family therapist and health care consultant, is coauthor of Love and Meaning After 50: The 10 Challenges to Great Relationships — and How to Overcome Them and AARP Meditations for Caregivers (Da Capo, 2016). Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.