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Author: Sheila Peace

The meaning of home in later life

Updated Monday, 25 April 2016
Does the meaning of 'home' change as we approach and enter later life?

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Housing and home are not always synonymous. When we think of home we think of something that is not just the material environment. It involves the social, the psychological and the structural environments.

It is a concept that is more complex and says something about personal meaning and identity, about family and friends, our life history. It varies depending on our age, gender, culture and generation. Given this complexity there is a vast multi-disciplinary literature on the concept of home from many disciplines. This includes sociology, anthropology, social/emotional geography, social policy, psychology, architectural studies and design.

For all ages home builds and supports personal identity. It is a place of belonging, social relationships and family, privacy, comfort, valued objects and possessions, connection and rootedness (Peace, 2015). The nature of home in relation to work and care continues to change as families, communities and society transform over time. Here the concept of home may take on new meanings in trying to maintain a sense of attachment, stability and refuge.

Home has also embraced the technological and digital. For people in the UK, being able to stay in their own home in old age may involve the use of assistive technology. The development of social media sees a gradual merging of public and private lives that impacts on well-being. The digital aspect, using portable technology, may be another home base: not location-specific, but transferrable between places.

Home in later life

Does the meaning of home change in later life? The concept of home is mostly seen as positive and supportive. The opposite view can report a place of isolation, abuse and social exclusion; where loneliness, frustration and conflict are found. While not equating living alone with isolation, many retirees live as couples, on their own – where a majority are older women - or with family. Their experiences can be negative and positive.

Most older people live in mainstream housing, from flats to detached properties. They are commonly mortgage-free homeowners. They may see their home as a form of ontological security that cannot be taken from them. Some older people may downsize and move in later life but a majority wish to stay put in a familiar environment; a view embedded in social policy. The embodiment of the home is always present. The built environment can include barriers to ways of coping at all ages, although with disability and frailty this may become more pronounced as people get older. Only a small percentage live in retirement or extra care housing with those living in care homes being predominantly in their 80s or 90s (Age UK, 2016). Innovative cohousing or intergenerational housing is still a minority experience that could be developed.

Maintaining and recreating home?

So, how can home be maintained or re-created in later life? For many people home just is, yet this question raises two important issues about home adaptation through design, and coping with change and re-establishing self.

Mainstream housing is not designed to be inclusive. Congruence between the person and their environment may change as people become less able. Recent research on the domestic kitchen by McGuire et al (2014) shows how people aged 60 to 90 yrs experience problems with bending, reaching, reading dials and having a place to sit. This makes this hub of the home problematic. Some continually adapt their housing to make it more ‘homely’ but this depends on resources, skills and recognition of ageing needs by the retail market.

Second, where an older person’s social network is variable they may need support from nonfamilial carers. For some ‘living at home’ can be central to maintaining levels of autonomy which may have to be delegated to someone else whether in a personal home or by moving to a care home. Here, the meaning of home may not change rather how a person’s status is perceived may change. In communal residential settings the needs of a work environment can outweigh the ability of a person to maintain personal identity. As noted the meaning of home is complex at all ages.

Further reading

  • Age UK (2016) Later Life in the United Kingdom
  • Maguire, M., Peace,S., Nicolle,C., Marshall,R., Simms,R., Percival,J & Lawton,C et al (2014) Kitchen Living in Later Life: Exploring Ergonomic Problems, Coping Strategies and Solutions. International Journal of Design.
  • Peace,S (2015) ‘Meaning of Home’ in Twigg,J & Martin,W (eds) Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology, Section : Time and Space, Routledge: London, pp447-454.

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