Attention to the deep meaning of home takes us to a kind of figurative commons, where we can have a serious discussion of the ubiquitous phrase “aging in place.”
For many practitioners and elders as well, aging in place has traditionally been equated with aging in one’s current residence – be it house or apartment. In fact, this is precisely the meaning taken in the AdvantAge Initiative survey in Indiana, which asked 5,000 older Hoosiers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement “What I’d really like to do is stay in my current residence for as long as possible.” Moreover, 94% of Hoosiers 60+ agreed with that statement! Clearly, staying put is the preferred choice for the vast majority of older adults in Indiana, and elsewhere. Our ethnographic research on the meaning of home in Bloomington offers some clues as to why people feel so strongly about the issue.
Home is a deep concept, far more significant than “house.” In the Bloomington research we encountered individuals who have lived in the same house for over 75 years! Imagine the sediments of memory that have been laid down over such a period of time. It requires a virtual archaeology of memory to peel back the deep meaning of a life in such a place. These memories, good and bad, are codified in the physical contents of the place. As she walks through the house, the owner walks, again, through life. Photos, furniture stains, knick knacks, postcards, window vistas, even dents in the woodwork signify and embody important events, episodes, and individuals in one’s life. How could one be expected to easily leave behind the door jamb marked by pencil with the advancing height of one’s children?
Home is a physical support. Over time, home and body coalesce, a hand in glove. We can walk through our home with our eyes closed because we maintain its physical representation within our body. This is very comforting. Managing the home (sometimes trivialized as homemaking) anchors daily life, provides markers for our temporal experience, and provides cues and incentives to keep our body and mind active.
Home is a financial cushion. For older homeowners (87% of older Hoosiers), the home is often THE primary financial asset. According to Michael Hurd of the RAND Corporation, home values during the current financial crisis dropped somewhere between 10% and 33% (according to different surveys). One can understand why, these days, older persons might be reluctant to tap their equity through the sale of their home.
Home is an aesthetic. You design its appearance for self-satisfaction and display to others. The aesthetic reflects your own sense of self just as importantly as does your clothing and your car.
Home is a social base. When you are home, it’s your territory, your turf. You control who enters. When you are home you are at the node of a social network of friends, neighbors and family. Home is a launching pad for connections with the immediate neighborhood and the wider community. This is why it’s so important to get out on the front porch and make it to the mailbox. (More on that later.)
With all these things in play, the home becomes a mirror for the self. It represents you to yourself and, as such, provides a constant reminder of your uniqueness and contributions to your family, your neighborhood, your community. Is it any wonder why someone would want to stay put?
What practitioners, family members, friends and neighbors know, however, is that staying put is not always the best solution if it results in social isolation, depression or unmanageable risks to health and wellbeing, notwithstanding the desires of an elder; and particularly so when the elder’s judgment is clouded by dementia.
Practically speaking, this “tension” between staying put or moving on often results in conversations and negotiations around “acceptable risks.” In fact, dichotomizing the choices as one or the other can be non-productive. Better to openly discuss the adaptations necessary to accomplish either goal. Staying put, indeed, does not mean “not adapting”. There are many adaptations we all likely need to make just to stay put. It’s not black and white – change or no change.
Acknowledging the complexity and difficulty of staying put, in light of the deep attachment to place, was one secret to the success of a home modification initiative created by residents, leaders, and providers for a NORC (naturally occurring retirement community) neighborhood in the little town of Linton, Indiana, population 5,000, in the spring of 2009. Having received a grant to spend 18 months assessing needs and building relationships with and among seniors in the neighborhood, the NORC leadership determined that improving mobility, broadly defined, should be a priority. The group wisely inferred that mobility in the home itself should be a starting point for any effort to assist elders to connect in the community.
Knowing that a foundation of trust was essential, a well-known and beloved community member (Crystal Woods) was hired to introduce the concept of home modification and repair to neighborhood seniors. Senior members of the NORC advisory group began talking about the project with their neighbors. A few older residents consented to a “home safety” check by Crystal. This provided Crystal an opportunity to initiate conversations about possible things that could be done in the home to make it more comfortable or safe. Additional visits were provided by nurses from the only home care agency in the community. Local, trusted contractors were then introduced into the home by and with Crystal to begin estimating jobs. Budgets were developed for each project, without assuming that every recommendation would be either necessary or approved by the elder and their adult children (who would only be invited into the conversation at the request of the elder). When a handful of projects were ready to propose, the neighborhood seniors on the advisory committee were empowered to select what could be offered to each homeowner, given the overall project budget available ($45,000). Soon, contractor work began and it was revealing to see the contractors themselves developing close relationships with their customers, often doing more than the job required -all closely shepherded by Crystal, from beginning to end. Once a few seniors were “hooked” they told their friends and, within a period of four months, 19 homes were modified or repaired, several with significant improvements such as new bathroom floors and fixtures, new assistive features, ramps, and handrails!
This is what I call a “down home” solution to a major community challenge. And I use the word home in the best sense of the term.
Note: I hope you enjoy reading my blog. Your thoughts and additions to the conversation thread are most welcome. You can reply publicly right here on the blog. For additional reading on the meaning of home I suggest checking out: Graham Rowles, Claire Cooper Marcus, Wendell Berry, Scott Russell Sanders, Gaston Bachelard, and others. These authors are acknowledged and the ideas explored in more depth in the chapter entitled Being and Dwelling in Old Age, in my book Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America (Praeger 2009). For a discussion on the sense of home and place in long term care facilities, see my chapter entitled Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community, in my edited volume Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture (SAR Press 2003).
In Indiana, we are working towards some state legislation called Hoosier Communities for a Lifetime. At the end of November, I am presenting a two day workshop on communication and dementia. For info about these things and more, just click back to the website at www.agingindiana.org
In October, I enjoyed the opportunity to participate in an amazing conference – Community Matters ’10. When I get a chance, I’ll blog a bit about the growing movement towards “heart and soul” planning.