BioBuild Fellow Carlisle Shealy to Defend Dissertation on February 24th

Designing outdoor spaces to support older adult dog walkers:

A multi-method approach to identify and prioritize features in the built environment

Associations between the built environment and walking are well understood among the general population, but far less is known about how features in the built environment influence older adults. As compared to other age groups, older adults are more likely to experience declines in physical activity, social interaction, and loss of community connectivity. Animal-companionship can provide older adults the motivation to stay physically active and help them mitigate the feelings of isolation. Built environments that align with the needs and abilities of older adults and their animal companions, like dogs, can encourage and help sustain walking habits. My research identified and prioritized features within the built environment pertinent to older adult dog walkers. My research involved an iterative three round study to gain consensus among expert panelists and guided walks and interviews with older adult dog walkers. Among expert panelists, safety from motorized traffic, crime, unleashed dogs, and personal injury was paramount. Experts also saw the value and agreed upon the importance of dog supportive features within the built environment, like dog waste stations and dog policy signage. Older adults also believed safety was important. They saw their dog as a protective safety factor against walking deterrents like aggressive or unleashed dogs. However, the feature that resonated most with older adult dog walkers was their interaction with nature. They described the pleasure of observing seasons change and the connection with nature that came from the tree canopy cocooning the walking path. Path design is also a necessary consideration. Older adults emphasized the importance of having options between paved and unpaved walking paths. The experts stressed the need for creating lines of sight and lighting. Those who plan, develop, and maintain spaces that support older adults can prioritize the features I identified in my research. Incorporating these features into spaces for older adults has the potential to translate into increased walking and opportunities to socialize contributing to mental and physical health.