“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.
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: