In the last years of my parents’ lives, they lived in a small apartment in a senior-living facility in a neighborhood that was short on natural beauty. To one side was a mobile home park; on the other was a townhouse development. Two blocks to the north was a six-lane highway bordered by huge office complexes. Yet between the townhouse development and the senior facility was a row of trees. Because this was the Midwest, they were oaks and maples mostly—broad and tall trees with many arching limbs.
My father, who was mostly confined to his apartment because of a stroke, was able to see one of the trees through a small corner window. Through spring, after he had the stroke, and into fall, he witnessed the rhythm of its life: in April, the first leafing out; in summer, when the tree was fully decked out and brimming with birds and sometimes cicadas; and into October when the maple was brilliant red.
It became his daily touchstone: seeing the tree in the early morning light when the rising sun brushed the top of its branches and in the late afternoon when the setting sun outlined every limb. From his favorite chair in the living room, he could admire developing thunderstorms and delight at how the wind shook the limbs and leaves. When I visited him, he would look at me and point to the tree, as if to say: look, out there is life and beauty, something wondrous.
I remember another man, the father of a friend, who also had a tree for a companion. Lenny spent his last days in a nursing home in an even worse location than my parents’: near downtown Denver, full of traffic noises night and day. His room faced a parking lot, but on the other side of the pavement was a barely alive elm tree—scraggly and small enough to fit between the parking lot and sidewalk—the kind of urban tree most people walk by without noticing. But, confined to his bed, Lenny took heart in its being alive—something apart from the nursing home regimen—and always pointed it out to visitors.
I’ve been thinking about the importance of nature for older people, especially those who are confined. Sometimes the view from our window is all we have, especially during the last year of this pandemic. Yet senior-living facilities ignore the importance of nature to seniors’ well-being. From my own experience, management focuses on making the front lobby look luxurious, based on the idea that first impressions sway potential residents. Money is lavished on dining rooms that appear elegant and sophisticated (while staff is paid minimum wage, but that’s another story).
Yet, these facilities could have improved their residents’ well-being more if they had planted more trees and provided more open space. Research has shown that people (of all ages) do better when given access to nature—whether it’s nearby parks, beaches, forest preserves or even backyards. The effect of “nature deficit disorder” on children who spend too much time on their screens has been well documented, and research on older adults is showing that they also need a connection to nature.
Spending more time outdoors improves concentration and sleep but also evokes earlier and perhaps happier times spent outside—swimming, bicycling, walking or running—even when those activities are no longer possible. Even observing nature awakens a sense of beauty that elevates people’s spirits, even, or especially, in those suffering from loss or depression. How many people had their moods uplifted last spring, when the pandemic first started, by the songs of birds?
Being close to nature connects us to a natural cycle that includes our own living and dying. It’s been more than four years since my father died. It was in November, after the trees had dropped all their leaves. By that time, he had tired of his struggles, but I wonder if the barren tree was a signal that it was time for him also to let go.