”In Finland, we use the concept “Green Care” to include all the wellbeing services that use elements of nature to promote human welfare. This includes both social care and health care, but also the services to maintain and promote our own wellbeing is an important factor.”
Interview with: Anja Yli-Viikari, Senior Research Fellow at MTT, Finland
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your area of interest and MTT’s general focus on sustainability, food and health.
I work as a senior researcher in MTT Agrifood Research in Finland. MTT specialises in sustainability and competitiveness of the Finnish food industry.
My field of specialty is in the development of Finnish Green Care activities, in Finland, we use the concept “Green Care” to include all the wellbeing services that use elements of nature to promote human welfare. This includes both social care and health care, but also the services to maintain and promote our own wellbeing is an important factor.
Currently, the activities of hippotherapy (form of physiotherapy using the movement of a horse to replicate the sensory and motor output of the human pelvis in walking.) and socio-pedagogic horse activities are the most well-known services. Horticultural therapy is also used in several care institutions. In addition, environmental education of children is promoted in plenty of places. There are for instance, nursery schools, where children spend most of their time outdoors, all-year-round.
We assume that this only the beginning. The potential of nature- or animal-assisted activities is vast. The broadness of the Green Care concept allows different professionals to meet each other and learn about the various possibilities discussions are always encouragingly innovative and creative.
What are the main benefits to a hospital of having outdoor space?
1) Providing tranquility, relieving stress and anxiety, reducing blood pressure, and easing muscle pain
2) Activating minds, alleviating depression and irritability and improving mood
It is interesting, the very same environment, a forest for instance, can encourage children who are shy to express themselves, and on the other hand, help in calming down the other children, who are impulsive. Many patients in care institutions, especially with long-term residence, are lacking meaningful activities to express their own capacities and strengths. Gardening for instance, may provide experiences where they are active and capable of doing things.
Nature and the outdoors would provide an added opportunity to improve recovery times for certain patients, it can lessen the trauma for patients due to their admission and further ease relationships within a hospital environment.
What could be preventing a hospital from making good use of nature and the great outdoors?
There are, of course, several of practical challenges while engaging patients in outdoor activities. Plenty of caring hands are needed to ensure the safety of the patients who might have several kind of physical and mental restrictions. Training and education is needed, we have seemingly forgotten the potential of nature and outdoor activities as care organisations are mostly focusing on providing basic, essential care.
What if space is very limited – are there other options?
Even small elements of nature can be valuable and sometimes more realistic for certain patients (nature photographs, natural noises, using of natural elements in handcrafts, animal visiting, tasting of locally produced fresh food, window views, are all examples.)
How can you measure the benefits?
The amount of scientific evidences is constantly increasing, the scientists are currently very active in this field. In UK, for instance, there are plenty of interesting units to investigate the health effects of nature.
The research topic, of course, is a tricky one. The benefits are not straight-forward, how we can meaningfully measure strengthened capacities and potentials of a person is not easy to define.
The benefits are wide ranging, from stress relief, to new but appropriate challenges, to physical activity. Nature is providing huge potential, both for peaceful staying and relaxing, but also for a great many activities.
A great many professionals of social and health care have got interested in animal- and nature-assisted methods. I think positive changes can be expected in the very near future.
Photographer: Tuija Ollikainen, at Jyrskynvirta Farm, Finland.
Interview date 03/01/2014