Note: This is the first of three articles about play and playgrounds for seniors. Links to the series are at the end of this article.
Our static moment of quarantine has been surprisingly elastic.
Just as we acclimate and refine the art of stay-at-home lifestyle, society flirts with re-opening.
Moving from isolation toward re-emergence poses a sort of whiplash unless we frame this moment in positive regard. Those of us in the ‘senior citizen’ or ‘elder’ demographic, aged sixty-plus, are amongst the most vulnerable to the novel corona virus. It is oft’ maintained that as our years advance, our propensity for stubbornness grows commensurately. This annoying trait comes in handy now as an asset toward resilience.
The opportunity is upon us to resume life, though not in the exact way we left off in March.
While we lament certain elements once taken for granted that are now irretrievably lost, we can simultaneously rebuild in a fashion that imposes an overarching goodness.
The time is ripe to reassess what we’ll be wise to incorporate into our new norm as we move forward; to analyze the impact of what we’ve foregone these last few months. It’s painfully evident that I’ve not partaken in a Yoga or Qi Gong class since mid-March. Nor do I necessarily see myself returning to exercise classes anytime soon. Inherent to sequestration is a reduction in physical movement. Additional is the absence of socializing within the contexts of classes, studios, gyms, etc. These summer months provide a reset from the still point of quarantine protocol. This is the moment where we claim the joy of seasonal outdoor activities. It’s an opportune time to “dare to dream.” A time to ”think audaciously” of how we can leverage the fears endemic in this pandemic to ultimately serve our health.
I’m a sixty-two year-old young widow living alone in remote central Maine. I’ve landed upon a premise for reintegration that holds equally true for “elders” living in urban, suburban, or rural areas – whether in economically impoverished or affluent surrounds.
This is a good place to note my predilection for semantics, employing the word “elder” as an identifier preferable to “senior.” Seniors have been singled-out as a group in need of protection, which some people perceive comes at their expense. Elder is a term used in cultures that respect the wisdom gained through our years. Elder is a value-added term that nods to the rich stories that underlie our wrinkles. That said, I’m gonna go with the word “elder” as I share my vision of a wonderful way to move forward.
Social consciousness has recently narrowed to perceive the senior citizen as someone who is not an equal partner in matters that hold stake in and make for a viable and thriving society. I say to heck with that. The optimal response to the bias of ageism is to ensure that older adults lead productive lives based on our level of functionality, and to establish us as contributors to society.
In a remarkably short while, isolation has resulted in a “slipping away,” albeit in subtle regard. In a matter of mere months, my once sharp edges have dulled. I need an excavator to extract complex, cogent sentences that once rolled effortlessly from my tongue. Verbal recall essentially requires a spelunking expedition to the recesses and caverns of my mind. I know that I’m not alone in this logical consequence of aloneness. So too, I feel how quickly aged muscles atrophy, and literally hear the creakiness of old bones when my body is idle.
The answer: MOVE.
The question: How. And, where?
Seeking to define, and ultimately refine a vision crafted to meet our new times, I’ve landed on the work of sociologist Ray Oldenberg, who pioneered the concept of “Third Place” in his tome The Great Good Place. Third place is our home away from home (first place), and aside from the workplace (second place). In colloquial terminology, it’s where we hang out.
It behooves us to consider third place as an essential zone, where we are free to express creatively and constructively amidst a shared resource. It’s where we connect with others. Ahhh … connecting with others … remember that? A past pleasure we’re wise to reinstate as we seek the best means of moving forward in the coronavirus era.
Oh, how we miss engaging with others. Devoid of those interactions, a shadow now occupies our formerly fuller daily routine. Let’s work in concert to restore that robustness to pleasantly punctuate the mundane of our day-to-day-ness.
Through thoughtful design, we can redefine a safe space in our community to come together and to welcome one another as we do so. Third places are places to transcend the divisiveness that plagues our nation (pun intended). We’re being called to communicate and interact in ways that unite us. What can we, as elders, designate and co-create for the purpose of cultivating common ground? What’s the mature counterpart to the tree houses and blanket forts of our childhood? Where can all of the kids congregate to be the cool kids?
The emphasis is on being inclusive, not exclusive, as are country clubs and posh gyms. The point is healthful interactions, mindful of what will likely be a longstanding new tradition of social distancing. Being outdoors has psychological advantages to being cooped-up inside. Science informs us that outdoor settings greatly diminish the likelihood of contracting the virus.
I feel better already – just dreaming of setting-up camp in a way that both communes with others, and maintains safe distancing. The solution calls for a context where we each have the space to do our own thing, yet also share common activity. The effect is a social leveling, where all types of folk find comfort. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve already met everyone I’ll ever know. Third places invite members of various social circles into one orb, where blossoms the possibility of meeting strangers who ultimately become cherished friends. When we were kids we mingled, naïve of class differences and racial constraints. Now it seems both time and timely to return to a certain innocence of a bygone era as we endeavor to attain social parity.
Third places are informal. People come as they are. And, people leave feeling better for having done so. Third places are neutral ground. No one has an obligation to be there, liberated from our previous decades rife with commitments. People coalesce out of sheer want to be there. There is a belonging-ness. From that comes a sense of self-worth that can be elusive in isolation.
A “third place” must by definition be easily accessible. This consideration is paramount when structuring a new paradigm specific to elders. There comes a time when our range of driving constricts, yet our desire to be out and about remains. The location shouldn’t entail a lot of time, energy, or expense to get to. Ideally, we can walk there, take public transportation, or make an easy drive. We want to be able to pop in and out readily, without entailing advance planning or stress. To take advantage of those grand days when the weather forecast calls for rain but the day brings sunshine. Aging renders us increasingly cognizant of diminishing time.Tthe ability to indulge in impromptu escapades becomes all the more precious.
The availability of food is common to third places. These days, that may mean bringing a brown bag from home. Once the threat of contracting the virus has quelled, it may mean seizing the food truck trend by organizing on prescribed days or times.
The importance of Oldenberg’s Third Place has increased exponentially since we entered this coronavirus chapter. It’s essential that we have a safe and comforting external place in which to gather. We’re social creatures by nature, as such it’s imperative that we not wither away in the bubble of isolation. A place where we flourish is a marvelous antidote to the rigors of aging. A place where we’re known by others provides security. It also alleviates the burden that aging places on family members who look out for us, as they see us enjoy our own cohort. Our third place is a place where we belong, and as such lends accountability to our life structure. On a personal note, a third place constitutes a place where I’d enjoy putting on lipstick before visiting, something I realize I’ve not done in this last few masked months.
Further, third places amplify our social connectivity. There, we learn from others of things a-happening in our extended environments.
We know from sociologists and psychologists of the myriad benefits we glean from third places.
Have you figured-out what I have in mind? I’m dropping clues while inciting you to run rampant in your imagination. Consider the context in which I’m writing: The Goric Playgrounds website.
Likely a few more insights will reveal my dream place third place…
As of late, beyond eating nutritiously and judiciously, my best daily contribution to my health has been the taking of walks. We all feel so much better when we get out and move. I’m cognizant when I exercise that it would be more fun and safer with another, or others. I hear my response to the physical therapist who a few months ago asked what was my overall health goal. It took but a heartbeat to answer. “I want to hop.” It’s been ages since last I’ve hopped.
How about you?
I’ve dared to dream about making an ELDER PLAYGROUND happen in my community.
Can you imagine? A third place populated not with people, but with actual playground equipment designed specifically for older bodies and the physical challenges we face; balance, strength, all that good stuff. I found Goric in my quest for healthy elder fun.
Stay tuned. My next blog will enumerate the findings of my research on the impacts that such “third places” deliver to our wellness.
Kerry Cubas has happily landed smack-dab-in-the-middle-of-nowhere. Former creative director for an international design firm based in Manhattan, she renounced global travel for a simple lifestyle’s low environmental footprint. Ensconced in the Maine woods by magnificent trees in lieu of skyscrapers, at a desk overlooking a lake, she works as a freelance writer.