Sunday, October 25, 2009

Outdoor Recreation and Aging

The experience of one woman who reclaimed adventure in her later years -
I first met Cynthia when she was in her mid-seventies, at Nickerson State Park, where she was part of a camping program that had decided to cook breakfast on the beach. The water was gently washing the shoreline of the bay side of Cape Cod and the morning light was spectacular. Sea birds called overhead and calm water extended to the horizon in a glorious view. The program staff was struggling to get a temperamental camp stove lit and Cynthia was making no bones about it - she was hungry.

Cynthia is an avid outdoors woman despite severe arthritis. The camping program was her first since the disease changed her ability to recreate independently many years before. Here she received assistance as needed with tasks her swollen hands couldn’t finesse, kayaked on freshwater ponds, and rode a hand-propelled bike on the Cape Cod Rail Trail. Her first experience with the Universal Access Program was a success, despite the cranky camp stove.

Over the next several years, Cynthia popped up all over Massachusetts. I saw her snowshoeing in Holyoke and near Concord. I hiked with her on Mt. Greylock and we canoed together in Sturbridge at Wells State Park. Over time Cynthia became well-known for her cheerful presence and good humor. It was always a thrill for her to get out of the house and have an outdoor adventure. After canoeing one day, I invited Cynthia to look a little deeper into her experience. "Cynthia, tell me what it is you are getting from the Universal Access Program that keeps you coming back for more and traveling all over the state?"

She looked at me and considered this for a minute or two, which seemed like a long time so I wondered if she had heard me. Then she looked up with an enormous smile and said "You know what? I just realized this. The Universal Access Program cured my depression!"

"I used to do all kinds of outdoors activities", she continued. "When I got arthritis it seemed like that life was over. I became very depressed. I could no longer do the things I loved. When I discovered this program and met all these nice people, after awhile I started feeling better. Now I don’t feel depressed anymore!"

The Universal Access Program is part of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and is a nationally unique state park program that makes outdoor recreation accessible to people with disabilities in Massachusetts. Through site improvements and equipment placement that allows for independent access, as well as structured recreation programs year round, the DCR offers numerous choices for those who want to get outdoors. Program activities include kayaking, rowing, cross country skiing, ice skating, snowmobiling, horseback riding, birding, and bicycling. Many programs are free and some have minimal fees. Individuals, families, and groups have gained greater access to the outdoors through this program since 1995. Cynthia is among many who have discovered that they can do something they thought wasn’t possible or who have reclaimed a seemingly lost part of their life.

Like Cynthia, many participants come back for more, using the program to get outside regularly, exercise, and connect with nature and other people. Some even end up buying their own kayak, sitski, or adaptive bicycle to recreate on their own. The beauty of the Universal Access Program though, is that it offers leadership, skilled support, safety, and adaptive equipment that may not be affordable for everyone to purchase on their own. For those who become regulars of the program, opportunities abound to explore new places and new activities, and develop personal goals.

It was a hot summer day in Hadley when I stopped in on a weekly adaptive cycling program on the Norwottuck Rail Trail. There was Cynthia , sitting at an outdoor table, enjoying an ice cream cone. "Marcy, Marcy!," she called out. "I did it! I biked the whole rail trail! Sixteen miles!" It was a triumphant moment. Cynthia had been working toward that goal for year or so.

Since then, Cynthia biked the entire trail many times on a weekly basis each summer, and still comes out occasionally. Now in her mid-eighties, she uses ski poles to balance her walking on snowshoes in winter and trails in summer. While health challenges in our later years can diminish our sense of adventure and limit opportunities, re-defining adventure for ourselves can feed our soul. Reclaiming what we can and still being able to try new things is a powerful re-creation of ourselves. Celebrating and assisting the outdoor adventures of those ahead of us in years offers a beacon of inspiration and a sense of wholeness that can transcend limitation. Don't hesitate to research local options and test new waters!

To find out more about DCR’s Universal Access Program, call 413-545-5353 or go online at

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