In the Summer 2020 issue of Generations, the journal of the American Society on Aging, professors Janine Wiles of the University of Auckland and Gavin Andrews of McMaster University look at the concept of “home” and how its meaning may have changed for older adults. They discuss the two basic components of home: the physical-material aspects and the social-relational aspects. Recognizing, however, that one’s home is more than one’s dwelling or those one lives with, Wiles and Andrews dig deeper into other social and emotional aspects of home for our aging population.
“Home” is generally taken to refer to the physical space it encompasses—its style, quality, size, etc. A safe and secure home is paramount, of course, and, for older adults, the physical components of a home (i.e., stairs, etc.) are especially important, particularly if mobility issues are a concern. But there are additional considerations as well. Does the space lend itself to accommodate guests or caregivers (if needed)? Is the interior easy to navigate (i.e., smooth flooring and transitions)? Are there areas for personal activity and social interaction (i.e., outdoor gardens, workshop, porch, etc.)? Is the home equipped for handicapped accessibility inside and out if needed, and, if not, can small changes be implemented to accommodate such needs?
The other basic element of a home, however, is its social-relational aspect, meaning the relationship of a person with others who may also live in the home as well as people living nearby. Are those relationships positive or problematic? A sense of belonging to a community with trusted neighbors can greatly enhance a home dweller’s sense of well-being. Older adults may live in communal living situations (i.e., independent living, assisted living, or retirement communities) or they may rent an apartment or own their own homes. Wiles and Andrews observe that, in general, “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.”
But apparently there is a new way to look at one’s home. This New-Age thinking is called “assemblage”: the idea that a home is composed of both human elements and inanimate elements that are interrelated and operate together as a system. Personally, I am not quite sure why this new terminology is so exciting or even novel. Everyone I know is aware that “home is where family is.” And one’s home is where one’s children, grandchildren, pets, friends, fondest possessions, and keepsakes are in plain view. All that brings home dwellers peace and comfort. Assemblage includes the neighborhood and community as part of the home. Well, of course. Is this new? I guess if you do not like your neighbors this may be a novel concept.
My mother resides alone in a retirement community in a single-family home, with only her dementia to keep her company. Yet she loves the paintings that cover every wall. Some paintings she’s collected, and others she has painted herself over the past several decades. She likes to kibitz with the neighbor ladies who stop and say hello. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed the clubhouse, where she used the treadmill and played bridge (and her friends would not get mad at her for forgetting what she was playing).
One of the reasons that our youth today have the highest rates of loneliness is a lack of a sense of belonging. Sure, they may have 700 Instagram followers and dozens of Facebook friends or TikTok viewers or even thousands of tweets that they read every day. But do they have a text-message group called “the Queens of Kally Ridge” or “Mom’s Neighbor Saints” like I do? I highly doubt it. They hide behind their phones and believe they are connected, but in truth they yearn to really belong to something of more substance.
Home is where people most feel they belong. As we age, we feel more connected to our home (apartment, duplex, camper, etc.) and all the surroundings of home that are part of it—the assemblage. The photographs and knick-knacks we have collected over the decades. We wistfully wait for the children and grandchildren to visit, and we hold tight to our memories and photographs of the years that have passed by.
With the recent pandemic, I am thrilled that Mom lives in her own home. I can visit her several times a week, give her a hug, and check on her. She has aides who come several times a week, so she does not feel alone. I text my group “Mom’s Neighbor Saints” when I miss a day to see if they have seen Mom out and about and they all check in. I think they are thrilled that they are in my “secret group” and most likely hope their son or daughter does the same for them some day! Many people have suggested that my mother should be in assisted living or other such environment because that is what they did for their loved one, and it felt right to them. Yet, my mom wants to stay home. She recently said to me, “I like to wake up each morning and see my beautiful paintings.”
Dr. Stephen Golant, in his book Aging in the Right Place, looks at how older adults adapt to a change in their living situations. He stresses that a person’s coping mechanisms and how they perceive their new environment can make a huge difference in determining whether the move will have a positive or negative outcome for them. This explains why some older people appear irrational or illogical in their desire to “stay put” when doing so does not seem to be in their best interest.
I know that one day Mom’s dementia will get the best of her and maybe staying home will not be an option anymore. So, until then, maybe we are both just holding on.
Photo credit: Joe Hepburn (Birmingham UK) @thatjoebloke – such a cute photo! Is it your parents?