Date of the last update: 01.12.2022
The article presents a little-known form of support and activity for seniors in geragogy and clinical gerontology, which is the therapeutic effect of the natural environment (ecotherapy). The use of ecotherapy in the induction of neurogenesis in the old age phase, in the formation of a sense of coherence, supporting seniors in crisis situations, as well as its relevance to the family life of seniors and the strengthening of intergenerational ties is presented. Ecotherapy harbors great potential and possibilities for multidimensional use in supporting seniors. It should be an important part of the activities of third-age universities, seniors’ clubs and other institutions for the activation and rehabilitation of seniors.
Table of Contents:
- The essence of ecotherapy, forest and integrated medicine
- The role of the therapeutic effect of the natural environment in the induction of neurogenesis in seniors
- Longevity and sense of coherence versus ecotherapy
- Ecotherapy as crisis support in old age
- Developing interests in nature and environmental education at universities of the third age
- Importance of ecotherapy for seniors’ family life and strengthening intergenerational ties
- Prospective opportunities to use the therapeutic impact of the natural environment in geragogy and geriatrics
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Deepak Chopra and Rudolph E. Tanzi in their excellent book entitled Your Super Brain. Develop the dynamic potential of the mind, they write: The most destructive aspects of aging usually have to do with inertia.
In other words, we do what we’ve always done.
In middle age, we gradually give up seeking new experiences. We become overwhelmed by passivity and lose motivation. Very many elderly people even feel paralyzed by inertia (Chopra, Tanzi, 2014, p. 223). At the same time, these authors note that “the relationship between body and mind is a real thing, and the choices we make have an impact on our lives. With these two facts in mind, we can say that the brain harbors great potential for anti-aging” (Chopra, Tanzi, 2014, p. 219).
So how do we prevent inertia in seniors, and how do we take full advantage of the opportunities that the human brain hides until late in life? This is one of the fundamental questions and challenges facing contemporary
gerontology. Piotr Szukalski (2009) talks about promoting successful aging, pointing to three basic criteria – indicators of recognizing that such aging is being dealt with. These are: a low level of disability, a high level of independent physical and mental functioning, and active involvement and interest in life. Dominik Krzyzanowski (2016), on the other hand, writes about aging gracefully. According to the author, the period of old age can be – fascinating, providing a sense of agency and success, and rewarding. So how to make aging successful, fascinating, satisfying? There are probably many ways and possibilities. One of them is environmental education and ecotherapy. The impact of the natural environment on a person, learning about nature, fascination with its beauty, physical activity in nature – these are factors that stimulate the brain, increase curiosity about the world, motivate action and at the same time satisfy one of the basic
life needs of man-the need for contact with nature. An interesting consideration of the importance of nature for humans was carried out by the German philosopher and aesthetician, Gernot Bóhme: The task of an ecological aesthetics of nature would be to remind us that for a healthy, not to say: for a good life, it is necessary to experience an environment that has certain aesthetic qualities. It would have to show that human well-being is co-determined by the sensory-emotional qualities of that environment. Finally, it would have to remind us again and again that man’s basic needs in life include not only the general need for beautiful surroundings, but also the need for nature: something that exists of itself and that moves man by its own existence. Man has a deep need for something other than himself. He does not want to live in a world where he encounters only himself (Bóhme, 2002, p.78).
These emblematic words of a prominent thinker justify the form of activation of seniors presented in this article as significant for their life and health.However, in the gerontological literature to date, this form of support and activation of older people is rarely indicated. As a direction of therapeutic influence it is sometimes mentioned, usually without a broader and deeper discussion. However, it provides an avenue for the realization of many diverse and important goals for social gerontology and geriatrics, such as the induction of neurogenesis in seniors, the formation of a sense of coherence in them, support in crisis situations, education, social activity.
The essence of ecotherapy, forest and integrated medicine
Ecotherapy should be understood as the therapeutic effect of the natural environment. Four aspects of ecotherapy can be identified. The first, organic-is the provision of foodstuffs and remedies to our body by nature. Thus, it will concern the so-called organic nutrition, phytotherapy – the therapeutic effect of plants, especially herbaceous plants and fruits of the undergrowth, and mycotherapy – the health-promoting effect of fungi.
The second is the relaxation and energizing aspect. Contact with nature has a stress-relieving and relaxing effect, while at the same time providing energy and activation. Of particular importance is the influence of the perception of natural greenery and the favorable air ionization (predominance of negative ions) for the human brain in green areas, especially in forests. Physical activity in nature provides excellent relaxation and oxygenation of the brain. The third aspect is related to aesthetic sensations in contact with nature, and the aesthetic experience is a kind of eustress, or positive stress, has a mobilizing effect and develops spiritually, while the fourth is an intellectual experience, related to learning about nature. The fascination with the logic and harmony inherent in nature satisfies man’s need for order and comprehensibility in the world, and gives him a sense of meaning derived from being an integral part of this world.
Ecotherapy also allows the therapist to gain special insight into the elderly person. One of the principles of improving senior care – as Mark E. Williams (2009) points out – is to work to increase one’s own perceptual abilities, and this is a more difficult task than it seems. Most medical education, but also education in other human sciences, is about general or specialized knowledge: there are lists, tables, charts, algorithms, decision trees or clinical diagnostic steps, while very little time is spent learning how perception guides human behavior. Staying together with seniors in nature, in a therapeutic garden, in the woods, or on a tourist recreational trail provides a unique opportunity to broaden and deepen one’s own perceptual abilities and establish a spiritual bond with the senior. Closely related to ecotherapy are two new branches of medicine, not yet well known, although firmly rooted in both tradition and science. These are forest medicine and integrated medicine. They involve very promising preventive and therapeutic perspectives. The fundamental assumptions and research directions of these fields are presented by Clemens Arvay (2016) and Richard Louv (2016). The former, who is a biologist, presented scientific evidence of the wonderful properties of the action of greenery. Staying sick people in the forest strengthens the immune system in a demonstrable way, the atmosphere of greenery and the forest lowers the levels of stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline, while activating the vagus nerve, responsible for a person’s calmness and regeneration. Hiking in the forest lowers blood pressure and calms the heart rate.Forest therapy helps control type 2 diabetes.According to research, forested areas are places on earth where people are less likely to develop and die from cancer than in non-forested areas. Arvay (2016) also provides further examples of the healing effects of forests, as well as gardens (hortiterapia) and other green spaces. He also cites Roger Ulrich’s famous, though not fully appreciated, findings, published in 1984 in the journal Science. Ulrich proved that simply looking out a hospital window at green surfaces and landscapes accelerates a patient’s healing after surgery. He compared the recovery of patients with a tree view and those who could only see the walls of houses through their window (see Arvay, 2016, pp. 123-126). Richard Louv (2016), on the other hand, writes about nature deficit syndrome, which is not a medical diagnosis, although perhaps it should be. As part of integrated medicine, patients are advised to get in touch with nature, i.e. vitamin N.This may prove to be the most effective health-promoting factor. Andreas Danzer, pointing to the biophilia effect, said: “We have roots, and they categorically will not grow in concrete” (after: Arvay, 2016, p.19). This thought brilliantly reveals a fundamental truth about man as a species, for which the right direction in the pursuit of health and full self-realization is precisely forest and integrated medicine.
The role of the therapeutic effect of the natural environment in the induction of neurogenesis in seniors
The process of neurogenesis (1) is currently the subject of intense research. The detection of stem cells, from which neurons are formed in the adult brain, was a significant turn in neuroscience and changed the previous view of the static nature of the brain. The findings prove that the brain remains a plastic structure for the rest of life (Sacharczuk, 2005). The growth of neurogenesis is influenced by mental life, which stimulates, among other things, visual processes in the brain (Goldberg, 2014), psychotherapy, under the influence of which synaptogenesis occurs (2) (Sikorski, 2016), physical activity causing an increase in proliferation (3) in the hippocampal area (Sacharczuk, 2005), a stimulating and enriched environment that promotes the growth of new neurons (Chopra, Tanzi, 2014). Ecotherapy using the impact of a natural, and therefore biodiversity-rich and stimulating, environment would provide excellent neurotraining for the senior brain. Also in people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, ecotherapy could be of great value. Mental activity, when simultaneously accompanied by interest, is probably a protective factor in this disease (Kopczynski, 2006). If Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed early enough, the mechanism of neuroplasticity could be triggered. The brain is now considered to be an organ characterized by a remarkable ability to adapt and an amazing power of regeneration. Chopra and Tanzi (2014) report that in an area where there is intense destruction of neuronal connections, neighboring neurons begin to form new protrusions to take on the functions of the destroyed ones. This form of neuroplasticity, called compensatory regeneration, represents one of the most promising areas for future research. The sensory-emotional quality of a senior citizen’s environment, along with the passion for exploring that environment, appear to be very significant factors in stimulating the brain’s processes of compensation and neurogenesis.
Longevity and sense of coherence versus ecotherapy
Both in scientific research, especially medical research, and in broader reflection on the human condition, one of the leading questions has been: why do people get sick? An impressive body of knowledge has emerged regarding the etiology of disease. However, Aaron Antonovsky (2005) formulated a different question: why are people healthy?
The observations made by him, as well as by other researchers, proved intriguing and, in a way, surprising.This was particularly true of concentration camp survivors, who sometimes spent several years there. They survived unimaginably difficult living conditions and later lived to a long healthy life. Why were they healthy? Can you point to something in common that characterized them?
The determinants and mechanisms of achieving health are explained by Antonovsky’s salutogenesis model. This model has become a breakthrough in the health sciences. The central concept of the salutogenetic concept is the sense of coherence, which consists of three interrelated components:
- comprehensibility – a person’s perception of incoming information as orderly, structured, clear and coherent, so that he or she has a sense of being able to comprehend, evaluate, understand and predict;
- resourcefulness – the degree to which available resources are perceived by a person as sufficient to meet the demands of the environment;
- meaningfulness – the degree to which a person feels that life has meaning, that at least some of the demands and problems that life brings are worth the effort, sacrifice and commitment.
The results of many studies indicate that a sense of coherence has a positive effect on health and coping with stress (Antonovsky, 2005; Woynarowska, 2008). The relevance of the concept of salutogenesis to geragogy is pointed out by Elisabeth Bubolz-Lutz, Eva Gósken, Cornelia Kricheldorff and Renate Schramek (2010). According to them, education and upbringing in senior age should be aimed at developing a sense of coherence.
Ecotherapy fits perfectly into the salutogenesis model, strengthening the level of coherence in terms of all components. Very important for feeling the meaning of life is the sense of connection with the natural environment. It is perceived not only as a whole, but as places to which certain meaning is attributed, with which certain emotions are associated (Kałamucka, 2009). Proximity to areas characterized by naturalness, the opportunity to commune with nature, the biological-climatic effects of forests, the presence of water, clean atmospheric air, and the composition of the landscape turn out to be important (Kopczynski, Skoczylas, 2008). An understanding of the laws governing nature can also have therapeutic significance, which strengthens the first component of a sense of coherence. The measure of peace and contentment is the degree of penetration into the complexity of nature, inner union with it and agreement with the necessary relationships that connect man to nature. The entire cosmos is subject to the laws of necessity.This lofty thought contains a calming and healing element like a balm, hence if it is reflected deeply enough, it can form an important basis for therapeutic activities. Man is a particle of nature, so by getting to know it, he gets to know himself better. The unity of nature, the necessary laws governing it and the relationship between man and nature were pointed out by Spinoza. His philosophy can be of great importance in ecopedagogy and ecotherapy (see Kopczynski, 2001, 2004).
Ecotherapy as crisis support in old age
Adam A. Zych defined a crisis situation as […] a temporary state of internal imbalance, triggered by critical life events that require significant changes and resolutions. A crisis in a person’s life can be temporary or chronic, referred to as a “chronic crisis”, lasting up to several years, arising as a result of withdrawal from its resolution at an early stage or the use of pathological ways of coping (Zych 2010, p.85).
The late-life crisis, characteristic of aging people, is defined by this author as […] a developmental crisis, leading to a breakthrough, i.e. a higher quality of life, if only it is positively resolved. The basic features of the late-life crisis include: a sense of psychological discomfort associated with aging, experiencing existential problems – posing questions about the meaning and shape of future life, processes of balancing and retrospective review of life, as well as planning for mod/ikations in the future and taking on new life tasks (Zych 2010, p. 85).
This way of framing the crisis of old age seems very pertinent and noteworthy, as it indicates its developmental and dynamic nature. The crisis can turn out to be edifying if it is resolved positively. Important in this context becomes, in particular, finding the meaning of further life, planning and setting new life goals. Ecotherapy can inspire both cognitively and emotionally, having both an invigorating and relaxing effect. Sometimes dormant layers of energy, potentially inherent in many seniors, can activate in contact with the beauty of nature and biodiversity.
Some authors point out that the crisis is often associated with retirement and loss of social significance (Skoog, 1997). At that time, the rhythm of the day also changes. If this is compounded by the loss of the environment (moving to a nursing home), combined with reduced adaptability, the crisis situation can be exacerbated (Schmidke, Schaller, 2006). Very important for the exacerbation of the crisis is loneliness, which in the elderly can be further exacerbated by “digital exclusion.” This fact is pointed out by numerous authors, analyzing the functioning of the elderly in the information society (see Kędziora -Kornatowska, Grzanka-Tykwińska, 2011). However, loneliness can have not only a destructive dimension, but also a creative one. This type of loneliness should be nurtured and learned, while eliminating its negative form (Kite, 2006). This is where the great challenge for ecotherapy appears. It can enrich spiritually and inspire creatively. For a retiree, especially a lonely one, two powerful spheres of creative contact with reality can reveal themselves: art and nature. On the one hand, art therapy can play a supportive role, having an almost magical meaning, having an anti-cancer effect on the psyche, Arvay (2016) recognizes fascination. A notable passage from his book is worth quoting: I once visited the garden of a certain anti-cancer clinic. In a very quiet place there was a stone with a big sign saying “hope.” Patients and visitors could sit on it and savor the quiet of the place in reflection. In another place grew a twisted very old birch tree. On its trunk was engraved “strength.” When you want to be creative in your anti-cancer garden, meld with him. You will then be part of it, and it will be part of you and your life. It will become a place that strengthens your strength, gives you courage and power for your soul, body and mind, it will be an Eldorado of stress reduction and human regeneration, a place where time turns back and pulls you out of the fast pace of everyday life and frees you from work burdens. Your immune system will benefit greatly from this (Arvay, 2016, pp. 263-264). On the other hand, ecotherapy, and combined together, can significantly enrich a senior’s life.
Aggravating factors in a crisis situation include pain and depression. Clemens Arvay (2016) points out three mechanisms, resulting in the alleviation of pain by experiencing nature, which at the same time have an antidepressant effect. When we move around in nature, outdoors, in daylight, pain-relieving mechanisms are activated in us. The production of the “happiness hormone “is increased by the action of sunlight. Serotonin can alleviate pain, and in addition to providing a sense of security, contentment and spiritual peace, it suppresses worry and fear and aggression. Since depression, according to many doctors, often occurs as a result of a deficiency of serotonin, the sun’s rays-through their effect on increasing its levels in the body-may help improve mood. The second mechanism is fascination, which is a special form of attention that runs without any tension and allows us to react. The more attention one pays to the pain, the higher the perceived intensity of the pain. When attention is diverted or shifted to pleasant sights of nature, a person pays less attention to pain, and thus the perceived intensity decreases. Pain patients need fewer painkillers when they regularly go out into the garden. In nursing homes and geriatric clinics where patients and residents have gardens, those who spend time in them take far fewer painkillers and fewer antidepressants. A third factor in nature’s pain relief is its stress-reducing effect. A special kind of crisis situation is often caused in senior age by cancer. Ecotherapy and all its previously mentioned aspects can play an important role here. Numerous studies and evidence point to the psychosomatic conditions of this disease and the role that the psyche plays in recovery (see Kopczynski, 1994).
For a very important aspect,Other crises in old age can also be identified, such as those related to the loss of loved ones, the last child leaving home, and disability. In all three situations, ecotherapy can have a supportive effect. The social environment and the natural environment are always two main areas that strengthen adaptation processes. When people fail more or less, inner strength can be sustained by creative contact with the natural environment. Finally, mention should be made of what is perhaps the unique and most profound crisis – the threat of suicide. Although unique, it is becoming increasingly common in various age groups, not leaving out seniors. In the phase of old age, especially after retirement, a balance sheet of life is often taken (Szatur-Jaworska et al., 2006). In suicidology, there is talk of so-called balance suicides (Schmidtke, Schaller, 2006). The threat of suicide exists both when the balance is positive and negative. Suicidal thoughts can occur when a senior feels that he has accomplished everything he had to accomplish in life, and also when he feels unfulfilled, but no longer sees a prospect in front of him and lacks motivation to carry out his plans (Kopczynski, Kaczmarek, 2014). Suicide in old age can also be a way of avoiding a reduction in quality of life (Wawrzyniak, 2011). Ecotherapy, again, offers ample opportunities for support and activation. Retrospectively, it allows one to refer back to previous experiences and interests. Rarely, contacts with nature in the past can arouse negative feelings. Many times it turns out that nature arouses very positive memories, recalls former passions and interests.Also prospectively, more frequent time spent in nature can give impetus to action and hope for a better quality of life.
Developing interests in nature and environmental education at universities of the third age
As Maria Susulowska (1989) rightly notes, universities of the third age, in addition to imparting knowledge in various fields to their students, also have a psychotherapeutic function. Thus, environmental education, conducted at these universities, would be part of ecotherapy in the broadest sense. Developing interests, in addition to its didactic function, also has a therapeutic function.
The formation of nature interests in seniors will promote the pursuit of contact with nature and spending time in nature, and thus the attainment of all the benefits derived from the environment. The therapeutic role of interests is underestimated in pedagogy and geragogy. Meanwhile, the psychocorrective functions of developing interests cannot be overestimated. Interests strengthen self-esteem, give meaning to life, optimize social interaction, strengthen the so-called sphere of success, as a result of fascination with the object of interest, distract from problems and difficulties in life, are an antidote to failures in other spheres of life. Above all, however, they shape and develop feelings. Antonina Gurycka (1989), in her model definition of interests, points out that one of the three main manifestations of interests, perhaps the most important, is the experiencing of feelings related to the possession and acquisition of knowledge. We owe the color and intensity of life precisely to feelings. Where this coloration is compromised, such as in people with disabilities, illnesses or in the phase of old age, it is interests that give color to life and determine the optics of the world. Enthusiasm for life, despite obstacles and difficulties, is most deeply rooted in interests. Nature has it that it easily arouses a passion for learning. In activating seniors, this should not be overlooked.
Importance of ecotherapy for seniors’ family life and strengthening intergenerational ties
There are still multi-generational families in Poland, living under one roof (more often in rural areas), a phenomenon that is extremely rare in Western Europe and the US, Canada or Australia (Wawrzyniak, 2011). For the elderly, family bonding is an important component of quality of life. Some forms of ecotherapy can positively influence the formation of this bond. In particular, ecotourism and recreation, working together on an allotment, mushrooming can be mentioned. All these forms can be combined with the transfer of knowledge about nature by seniors to their children, especially grandchildren.
Distinguishing different types of tourism, one speaks of tourism of “third age” people (Przeclawski, 2009). Among these very people there are many who wish to participate in ecotourism – to visit the most valuable natural, scenic and cultural corners of our country. Family participation in this form of tourism can promote integration and strengthen bonds between family members (Zaręba, 2006; Kopczynski, 2011).
Work on an allotment also plays an important role in the lives of seniors. It is, so to speak, a compensation for professional work and a continuation of communing with nature, which at the same time involves specific social contacts (Zdebska, 2015). On their days off from work, seniors can spend time on the allotment with the rest of their family, including grandchildren, for whom it will be a break from the technicized and computerized world in which they usually live every day.
Particularly noteworthy are family walks surrounded by nature and mushroom picking. Poland is a mycophilic country. Mushroom picking has a long tradition. Surveys conducted throughout the country show that knowledge of mushroom species is greatest among seniors, and children and young people consider their grandparents rather than school and teachers to be the main source of mushroom knowledge (Kopczynski, Lawrynowicz, 2000). Seniors participate in mushroom picking together with their grandchildren, to whom they can pass on knowledge about mushrooms and the forest, strengthening family ties and self-esteem.
Prospective opportunities to use the therapeutic impact of the natural environment in geragogy and geriatrics
Environmental education in the modern world is becoming a priority for pedagogy, it is a necessity for future generations. There is no alternative to it if humanity is to survive. The destructive effects of technical civilization on the spiritual and mental development of the modern child are all too apparent. Louv (2014) wonders in his excellent book The Last Child of the Forest how to protect our children from nature deficit syndrome. The book is an appeal and a challenge to educators and teachers, to parents and educators.The clock points to five twelve.And there is no exaggeration in this. And if it is, it is only in the other direction, perhaps it is already five past twelve. Environmental protection will be realistically possible only if environmental awareness is formed in childhood. Gerontological prevention should begin as early as youth and even in childhood. In order for the elderly to function efficiently in an ever-changing society, preparation for this stage of life should begin much earlier. Already in youth, one should develop interests and get used to active leisure activities, constantly
update the stock of one’s own knowledge, so as to be able to continue such a lifestyle during retirement or pension.
For geriatrics, on the other hand, the obvious fact is the effects of drug interactions in seniors taking an average of six-eight drugs simultaneously. The darker side of pharmacotherapy is now being revealed and exposed more and more. The turn to forest and integrated medicine seems inevitable. One would wish it to happen as soon as possible. There is an urgent need for scientific research into the effects of ecotherapy, but the medical and pharmaceutical world is not showing much enthusiasm. Comparatively few resources are also being devoted to research in the field of herbal medicine.
The therapeutic effects of the natural environment have enormous potential. This is due to the fundamental truth about man today, which is expressed
is expressed in seeing him as a psychosomatic unity, in mutual integral relationship with the ecosystem in which he lives. It should be realized with clarity that anastomosis with nature is the most reliable path to health and longevity for people of all ages, especially seniors.
- Neurogenesis– the process of formation of nerve cells specialized for receiving, processing, conducting and transmitting nerve impulses.
- Synaptogenesis – the formation of synapses, structurally specialized contact areas between nerve cells or between a nerve ending and an effector cell (e.g., muscle), enabling unidirectional conduction of impulses.
- Polyfertation – the intensive multiplication of cells as a result of rapidly successive divisions.
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