The Meanings and Materialities of “Home” for Older People


This article discusses the importance of home to older people as “home” arises in its various forms, in terms of its material, social, and symbolic features and adaptations. Home in the context of aging—for all people—is multifaceted and complex. All these aspects have important implications for professional and voluntary support and care provided in homes, initiatives, and places, as these spaces and policies attempt to replicate some elements of homes and broader social policies that deal directly or indirectly with the places in which older people live.

Key Words

home, physical, social, relational, autonomy

Since the mid-1990s, the meaning of home has been studied through understanding older people’s perceptions, experiences, emotions, and feelings (Rowles, 1993; Coleman and Wiles, 2020), and by locating these within broader social, cultural, and political contexts of housing (Dupuis and Thorns, 1996).

A more recent focus is a “post-humanist,” or what some call a “new materialisms,” research lens, which recognizes the power and agency active in things so that materials and technologies are not just inert backdrops or tools in older people’s lives. This new approach describes the creation of homes through collections or “assemblages” of human and nonhuman actors (Andrews and Duff, 2019; Buse, Martin, and Nettleton, 2018). Thus, this article examines how home is meaningfully and materially important to older people.

At its basic functional level, housing provides shelter from the elements and a base from which a person operates their daily life. A “home,” however—an altogether more holistic concept—is multidimensional and multifaceted. For many, it is a wealth builder and a symbol of success. It also can represent and facilitate engagement with family and community, as well as engender feelings of stability, safety, control, comfort, and sanctuary (Wiles et al., 2017). For older adults, there are strong correlations between possessing a positive sense of home or neighborhood and experiencing improved physical and psychological health, function, and general well-being (Walker and Hiller, 2007).

However, questions arise from these realities: What do the meanings and materialities of homes hold and imply for individuals as they age? How do these impact older people’s interest or willingness to adapt or to change their location, if or when their capacities change? What do these mean for creating or expanding alternative housing types for older people?

The Key Ingredients of “Home”

For older people, home comprises many vital ingredients. Broadly, these tend to include a combination of physical−material and social−relational aspects (Oswald and Wahl, 2005; Rowles, 1993; Sixsmith, 1990).

Physical−material aspects

Physical−material aspects might be the style, comfort, quality, and appropriateness of a person’s home. More generally, these aspects might pertain to the quality and characteristics of housing stock, set within a locale that makes housing appropriate for older people—or not. For example, the general age of housing in a particular area, along with whether that housing is dry and well-insulated (making it cost-effective to maintain an ambient temperature), and if it is physically accessible and of an appropriate size and design for the needs of older people (Iwarsson et al., 2007)—all are factors to consider.

Appropriately sized housing might mean having space to host and accommodate visiting relatives and friends (including in-home caregivers, if needed), and space for activities of personal interest (e.g., sewing, gardening, reading, or woodworking). Similarly, a neighborhood’s physical−material features are important; these features encourage physical activity and social interaction, and include attractive destinations and green spaces, as well as smooth footpaths and curbs that are easy to negotiate on foot or with a scooter. There also should be places to rest, public bathrooms, and easily accessed shops, services, and amenities.

Social−relational aspects

Social−relational aspects of home might include relationships with others and living arrangements (e.g., a person living alone, or with a partner, or with others), and the degree to which these social relationships are positive, enabling, and supportive—or problematic (Walker and Hiller, 2007). If older people live in neighborhoods where there are opportunities to engage with other people or in valued activities (Gardner, 2011), where they feel a sense of safety and belonging (Young, Russell, and Powers, 2004) and can have trusting and reciprocal relationships with neighbors (Walker and  Hiller, 2007), they tend to feel more secure at home.

Other aspects: homeownership, renting, communal living

At broader structural levels, regional and national patterns of home ownership and home rental are shaped by social policy, along with past and current markets, which may encourage and support people to become homeowners. These patterns reflect and shape collective cultural and social values and beliefs around housing-related factors such as personal security, privacy, family, and continuity of sense of self (Dupuis and Thorns, 1996). 

Generally, older homeowners, more so than older renters, tend to have a stronger sense of attachment to the places in which they live, experience more autonomy and security related to home, and fare better in a wide variety of well-being measures, including mortality.

‘A positive sense of one’s home and neighborhood is strongly correlated with improved physical and psychological health, function, and general well-being in older people.’

Many older people live with others; sometimes this is because of the social values they hold about family, or because they are dependent upon care from family members or provide care to others themselves and the home is a site of care. Increasingly, older people live communally in supportive non-kin relationships. There also is a proportion of elders who frequently move between different homes; in many cases, these people may be precariously housed or even homeless (see Kushel article in this issue).

Home as “assemblage”

Meanwhile, a new way of thinking about home is as a particular type of “assemblage,” one composed of related human and nonhuman components that operate together. For example, in the context of care, different types of care settings—including homes—might be understood as unique assemblages composed of caring bodies, cared-for bodies, specialist materials, and mundane materials—all interacting in particular space−time routines and practices (Buse, Martin, and Nettleton, 2018).

Assemblage as a concept is not limited to owner-occupied dwellings. It is increasingly the case that the concept of home has been extended in research—mirroring the reality in older people’s minds and in lives lived—to capture other places and larger scales. Beyond calling their house a “home,” people also may identify their community, neighborhood, or city as home. As well, home to older people might be regions, even countries, which they occupied at different times of their lives (Andrews et al., 2009).

For older people (and their supporters) an acceptable, liveable home involves an ongoing, active negotiation of a home’s physical characteristics, social aspects, and people’s sense of meaning, and then the home itself—and these four elements combined (Heatwole Shank and Cutchin, 2016). It is important for professionals to understand these complex and reciprocal relationships so they can best help older people to be happy, healthy, and safe at home.

Relationships, Attachments, and Meanings

Older people can have intense relationships with their homes; this amplifies the meaning of home. Thus, increasing proportions of older people live in their own homes rather than in residential care settings.

Attachment to place is an emotional, positive bond between individuals and their homes—and their communities. These feelings of attachment can include pride, safety, familiarity, belongingness, and satisfaction (Oswald and Wahl, 2005; Rubinstein, 1989). Such positive feelings often reflect the sense of familiarity and security older people have about their homes (and neighborhoods or communities), and the supportive relationships and involvement they have with other people who are connected to their homes (Wiles et al., 2012).

Holding positive feelings about home (including regarding one’s community as home, or valuing proximity to significant others) is one key reason older people may wish to “stay put.” These feelings also may become the means by which they can stay put, even amid rapid physical and-or mental changes affecting the older person or changes in the neighborhood (Cristoforetti, Gennai, and Rodeschini, 2011; Golant, 2008).

The practical manifestation of these affective bonds includes a greater sense of autonomy and independence, for example, around decisions about the house itself. Intimate knowledge and familiarity with one’s physical environment can enhance and even maximize the ability of older people to conduct everyday activities. It may allow more flexibility and resources for adaptation when people are experiencing physical or cognitive deterioration (Gitlin, 2003; Oswald and Wahl, 2005), and even have a positive impact on everyday activities or reduce or minimize the need for external support from care providers (Rubinstein and Parmalee, 1992).

The value of neighborhood

As people age (particularly into advanced age), they may spend increased amounts of time at home and in their neighborhood. Moreover, many older people have lived in their homes for long periods, even if they have moved to a different residence, they may have spent a long time in one community or neighborhood (Oswald and Wahl, 2005). Many older people make valuable contributions to their communities—as volunteers, as advocates supporting others or as activists lobbying to improve housing and other community amenities, and through nurturing community networks and connections (Wiles and Jayasinha, 2013). In turn, the relationships and sense of achievement developed through these contributions can become supportive resources for older people to age well.

Older adults’ social familiarity with people and places may lead to their increased awareness of and connection to local services that serve elders, enhancing their ability to access practical support from family and friends (Rowles, 1993; Smith et al., 2004). Healthy aging often is understood to be a state achieved through personal effort and supported through social connectedness and relationships that derive from having a home (Sixsmith, 1990). Thus, routines and familiarity with a place can help individuals adapt to the aging process.

Familiarity, a sense of self, and residential normalcy

Personal connections and ideas about home may preserve a sense of identity and continuity of self (Rowles and Ravdal, 2002; Rubinstein, 1989; Wiles et al., 2012). The home, or cherished objects or arrangements in it, may prompt recollection of an older person’s past achievements and significant relationships, or support long-standing relationships and activities. Having a sense of attachment to home and community relates positively to physical, social, and emotional health and well-being in older age (Sixsmith, 1990).

Such familiarity, however, may also lead to people perceiving a less than ideal home and-or community environment as sufficient and unchangeable, especially if they believe the problem is their problem (e.g., such as increased frailty), rather than something that could be fixed in their environment.

Physical material aspects of a home might include its style, comfort, quality, and appropriateness.

The residential normalcy model (Golant, 2015) highlights the diverse adaptive strategies older people use to cope with unmet needs and to feel “normal” and at home where they live, and incorporates objective and subjective assessments of that environment. Residential normalcy happens in places “where individuals experience overall pleasurable, hassle-free, and memorable feelings that have relevance to them; and where they feel both competent and in control—that is, they do not have to unduly surrender mastery of their lives or environments to others” (Golant, 2015).

Golant emphasizes how older people modify or adapt to their home environment in complex and diverse ways to circumvent problems. Usually, this is helpful and positive, but it can also become maladaptive. When older people find themselves out of their residential comfort or mastery zones, they may initiate maladaptive coping mechanisms. These could be accommodative (e.g., lowering environmental expectations or aspirations, or rationalizing that bad living arrangements are not that important for self-esteem, self-identity, or happiness), or assimilative (e.g., changing how they occupy or use their homes, rather than changing the incompatible content or features). Different older people subjectively appraise the same “objective” environment in different ways; this also depends upon their coping repertoires, which are richer when they are aware of coping strategies they perceive as viable.

These kinds of models help us to understand older people’s sometimes apparently irrational or inexplicable desires to stay put; they also help us to understand older people’s decision making about remaining in housing environments that no longer seem objectively appropriate (Golant, 2015). Also, the models show the importance of supporting older people to expand and strengthen their existing coping strategies, as well as to provide support for housing modifications and adjustments.

Material features and content can be key to attachment

Material features and content are key to identity attachment and a sense of home, because they can determine older persons’ comfort and overall experiences (although some older people love their homes irrespective of their quality). The design and standard of buildings—size, amenities, layout, and state of repair—are critical; this also applies to congregate settings. Residential care environments do well to focus on architectural features and amenities (e.g., gardens) to facilitate positive “homely” atmospheres and affects. These affects are not always experienced by occupants consciously, but are embodied through their senses and sensory memory to promote a sense of being “at home” (Nettleton, Buse, and Martin, 2018). On another level, it often is the small and seemingly mundane things, such as cherished possessions or arrangements of objects, within older people’s living environments that help them to retain a sense of self and home (Coleman and Wiles, 2020).

Sensory and atmospheric aspects of home

Most recently, research has attempted to explain how the sensory, atmospheric aspects of homes add to older people’s well-being. If complex care is taking place within the home, or if the home contains a lot of technical or medical equipment to support a person’s changing physical function, this can enable people to be well, but also may come to dominate the space, changing the home’s aesthetic and atmosphere (McKeever et al., 2006). Likewise, where care workers are coming in to support, the older person’s home becomes these workers’ workplace; each may have different needs (e.g, around cleanliness, a need for clear spaces, or around health and safety issues) (McKeever et al., 2006).

Beyond the concept of home as a mere building, research has described the embodied affective and atmospheric experience of wider settings and activities: big skies and fresh air, open spaces, brisk walking, and ordinary out-and-about encounters found in urban green spaces and rural spaces (Andrews et al., 2009; Gardner, 2011). All of these are important to older people for cultivating a sense of mental and emotional well-being, as well as for facilitating physical activity.

If elders find themselves out of their residential comfort or mastery zones, they initiate forms of coping.

This new focus on the sensory and atmospheric aspects of home encourages researchers and policy makers to think carefully about how to support and facilitate people’s everyday practices, experiences, routines, and activities, and to consider the broader political economies and structural facets at play. For elders, this might mean supporting a diversity of participation in decision making (Dizon, Wiles, and Peiris-John, 2019). For example, to be meaningful, consultation with older people should take place in a variety of locally accessible community forums and online. Genuinely inclusive consultation should deploy appropriate social and cultural protocols, such as holding meetings at different times of the day, partnering with diverse community groups and organizations, using different languages, and providing support for physical access. Information also must be provided in suitably accessible ways (e.g., using inclusive and accessible language, using readable, larger print fonts, and offering opportunities for interactive discussion).

Housing Topics Deserving Greater Exploration

There are still gaps in our understanding of the importance of home for different people and groups with different needs. Gitlin (2003) points out that more attention should be paid to social diversity and identity, because the meaning of home may be more problematic for more vulnerable groups of older people, and for those living in changing or undesirable neighborhoods (Means, 2007; Smith et al., 2004). Some research work has emphasized the difficulties for older people in vulnerable housing situations. Older people in the private rental sector, for example, often are subject to poor-quality and even dangerous housing, high levels of uncertainty and poverty, and frequent moves (Bates et al., 2019).
Our work with culturally and socioeconomically diverse groups of older people highlights the broad inequities experienced by groups who are minoritized or marginalized by mainstream society, and the difficulties for these groups to access (or to appeal to authorities for improved access) to even basic resources: accessible footpaths and public transport, opportunities for social connection, food, and healthcare (Ameratunga et al., 2019).

Other researchers have emphasized the challenges for homeless older people—in gaining access to shelters and housing resources, and in being visible to service providers (Grenier, Barken, and McGrath, 2016). Challenges also exist for owner-occupiers who are in precarious positions (e.g., older people with dementia or people with limited income) and who may need considerable support and resources to be financially and logistically able to modify and adapt their housing so they can remain in their homes (Means, 2007).


This article has discussed the importance of home to older people as it arises in various forms and scales, in terms of its material and meaningful features and the many relationships and adaptations involved. It is clear that home in the context of aging—for all peoples—is multifaceted, complex, and challenging to pin down. That does not mean, however, that home can be overlooked. All of these aspects have important implications for the professional and voluntary support and care provided in homes, for initiatives and places that attempt to replicate certain aspects of homes, and for broader social policies that deal directly or indirectly with the places older people live.

For older people, home combines many elements (material content, identities, responsibilities, status, affections, and emotions), all of which are in dynamic interaction. Home is a platform for successful aging and integrates a range of scales, from the physical body through to regions and countries. Professionals in the aging services sector would be wise to consider all these elements when working with elders.

Janine L. Wiles is an associate professor in Population Health at The University of Auckland, New Zealand. Gavin J. Andrews is a professor in the Department of Health, Aging and Society, McMaster University, Canada.


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