Hack’s Arch

April 16, 2018
munson 1 jpeg


Merrill Hacker, “Hack”, was visited near the end of his days by cultural anthropologist Phi Stafford from Indiana University. He was a resident of the Bloomington Convalescent Center. From his room, Hack maintained a close relationship with nature and displayed a kind and devoted heart for his fellow residents. His story is told in the chapter entitled Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community IN Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture (2003), Philip B. Stafford (ed). Santa Fe: SAR Press.The effort to preserve Hack’s arch was led by the Monroe County Historic Preservation Board of Review and the Monroe County Commissioners. The arch will be re-dedicated in a ceremony with his family at its new location in Will Detmer Park on April 23, 2018.

The first time I saw Hack in the corner of his room in the nursing home, I was reminded of Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz. Tall, lanky, and graceful, though slightly bent, Hack is silhouetted against the window, his back towards the room as he tends to living things – the pigeons and sparrows which visit his second floor birdfeeder, the two foot long seedlings sprouting from white styrofoam cups. One seedling is a hackberry and I’m struck by the coincidence of naming – even moreso as Hack explains to me his connection with the hackberry tree standing out back of the nursing home. The hackberry, he explains, is an ancient tree. “You don’t see too many of them around here anymore.” They’re called hackberry, he explains, because the bark looks as if it’s been all hacked up. The one out back, he notes, had some kind of injury to it as he noticed that, almost overnight, a butterfly-like growth appeared on a crotch of the tree, “a way it kind of repairs itself,” he says. He fans out his fingers to show how it looks. He tells me which tree he’s talking about among the several behind the facility.


A couple of days later, as I leave by the back door I check out the tree. Sure enough, about twenty feet off the ground the immense tree sprouts a shelf-like growth exactly as described by Hack. The nursing home employees casually enjoying their cigarettes under the shade of the huge tree have, as in Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree, an entirely different connection with that tree. I doubt they have noticed the growth and I bet they don’t know its name.

In another visit, as I chat with Hack’s roommate, we are politely interrupted by Hack, who wants to show me the praying mantis, now mummified, which flew through the window into his room a few days ago. Pinching it gently between his fingers, he explains:

“They’re like lady bugs.”
Phil: They eat a lot of stuff?
Hack: They catch ‘em. Just like that (shows motion with his hands)…faster than a man can draw, that’s what they say. I sit and watch‘em, ‘till I get real close, and they know exactly, like rabbits.

Phil: They stay real still?

Hack: Just like you bat your eyes.


He explains how this one came to join him in his room…This one flew in the window. I told Myron (roommate), look at that, and that thing
flew in here. I said, where’d he go… and I looked and looked and looked.
I was afraid that thing would get in bed with me. And I finally found it..
fact is… there (pointing) I caught it settin’ up there.
Phil: yeah, now you got a trophy.Hack: I’m gonna try to mount it.
Phil: Mount it with a pin?
Hack: Put him on there (moves to the wall to show the spot where the mantis will be displayed). I don’t know. I’ve got so much to do. I’ve got a list over a mile long.

Our discussion turns to some of the other items on his wall: one of those “bird’seye” photos of a farmstead taken by itinerant pilots and sold to the relevant farm families; another framed photo of a small bungalow highlighted in front by a stone arch at the beginning of the sidewalk leading to the house. The arch has no accompanying fence. As such, it seems out of place. Hack mentions how his son used to mow the grass across the road at Ms. Wisnand’shouse. (I am amazed at how the circle turns – Ms. Wisnand, now in her nineties, lives in the next room!). Hack, pointing to the arch, and speaking proudly of his son, says:

“He sees now what old Dad did. I did that.”

Phil: You did?


Hack: A windstorm (blew it down)… my son said (to the insurance man), ‘There’s nobody gonna fix that unless they put it back exactly like Dad had it!’ This guy (handyman) looked at it and said, ‘I’ll put it back exactly like that’… and he did.

Pointing to the stone work, Hack says:

I cut every one of them with a pitchin’ tool…

Phil: You cut it with pitching tools… you mean you dug them out of the ground?

Hack: You face it.
Phil: You call that pitching it?
Hack: Yeah… pitching it is making rock face out of it…and squarin’ it up – it’s a breakin’ tool (shows me the movement of the tool with his hands)… something like a big wide chisel, but it’s cut on just like that – you get that just right and it’ll break the rock. But you line it with a square, and then cut it. Put your rock face on it.

Phil: Did you work in a rock quarry too? I asked, beginning to wonder if there was anything that Hack had not done.

Hack: My uncle was a stone carver, he cut stone WPA. He cut on what they called a banker, made out of heavy 4 by 4’s… in fact – like a (unintelligible) so they won’t bounce. It’s gotta be solid or the rock won’t break just right. These banker tables was made so they didn’t give – that’s where they broke the rock. They put it on there and hit it with a wooden maul… made outta hedge apple. (note 1)

Phil: Oh really… yeah?


Hack: …bout as hard as you can get. You get a root, make it out of hedge apple. Most of‘em had a wooden pin.

Phil: What kind of head did the maul have?
Hack: It was round (discusses how a good maul won’t split).
Phil: Does your son still live there?
Hack: My youngest boy’s there, Stevie.
Phil : And the arch is still standing there?
Hack: Yeah. A big storm came right up Vernal Pike.
Phil: Yeah, I remember that.
Hack: And they didn’t get no warnin’…
Phil: That was about five, six years ago.
Hack: Back in …oh… (pause) it broke trees all down in there. After the trees was all down and the people was gathered around there, the siren went off…

Phil: (laughs)
Hack: My son says, why in the hell… that shows they’re really on guard… you’d better believe it. And when it comes out in the paper, it was “high winds.”

Phil: High winds

Hack: When it twists the trees off (shows with his hands in a wringing motion), that’s awfully high winds.

Phil: I’d heard that a hedge apple tree was hard wood, you can’t split it.
Hack: It’s curly…. you can see the grain go round there. I used that for a long time. My uncle used to work on the WPA. You know the stone wall around Rose Hill? (the city cemetery)


Phil : Sure. ’33, something like that? ’34?
Hack: Well, I was just a kid. I’m 79 now, I imagine I was about 14. Hard times.
Phil: Yeah. (pause) Well, were you born in this house?
Hack: My kids were… I bought that in 1939, my wife and I was married in ’38.
Phil: You set up housekeeping there?
Hack: Yeah, that’s where all the kids were born. Five kids. I had six kids, lost the second boy, didn’t know how to breathe.
Phil: Happened to me too.
Hack: All they needed to do was put him on a respirator, but back then they didn’t know what to do.

Phil: Yeah.

Hack: There’s a double garage out there, with a breezeway (pointing) … here’s that old building. (unintelligible) Anderson bought the land all the way through to Packinghouse Road – and I tore that old building down.

Phil: Why did you move from there (one picture) to there (next picture of farmstead)? Hack: My second wife, we married in ‘69, and she owned that piece down there, and when we was goin’ together, that’s what we said, when we’d both retire, we’d go down there. That was an old school building (pointing to the house), called Red Cut, bout three quarters of a mile from Koleen, right down in an old lake bed. Thousands and thousands of years ago all that stood in water, but an extra big rain happened thousands of years ago and washed the lower end out, and that lake drained. There’s still a creek. (Conversation moves on to his time in this house near Koleen)


As Hack talks about his life, I generally stand in awe. He possesses only a basic education, but a wealth of knowledge. I am reminded how much I love the work that brings me in touch with smart old guys like this. When he talks about doing some “water witchin” as a kid, and not finding a peach fork, he lets me know how he improvised with a coke bottle and a “number nine” wire. When he tells about the man from Texas who came up to drill wells, it’s important to remark that he used a number five casing, “not a number six like they use around here.” And when he got his water from a rock spring out at his Greene County home, it was cold…” it was at least 51 degrees, and that water in the wintertime would feel good on your hands.” As he talks his body enters into the conversation. The objects we use to construct our conversation, the pictures on the wall, help cement the relationship between us and place us in the landscape we are noting together. The stone arch is significant. Yes, it does have a symbolic import; it’s a symbol of his artisanship and a vehicle for a son’s pride in his father. But it’s more than that. It’s a presence in and of itself. As Hack stands there and “faces” those rocks with his hands, that arch is rebuilt, recreated anew, just as Bosco describes Sidoine’s housework as acts of creation.(note 2) It also occurs to me that the picture of the arch is not taken from the house looking outward, but rather outward looking in. The arch is not an exit but an entrance – an entrance to a home and a family. The absence of any attached fence makes sense now. This is a home which welcomes and invites. It speaks to hospitality and neighborliness, not property and enclosure.

As Hack talks of his life in these places he is not merely reminiscing, he is reliving, re- experiencing them. The slight bend in his upper body suggests not age but a physical yearning towards a place. Perhaps old age replaces the horizontal journey of youth with the vertical journey towards the earth. Western culture seems to denigrate the low, the earthy, the fallen.


Perhaps these metaphorical associations are universal as some would argue (note 4). Indeed, the “fear of falling” has become, in American society, a heavily charged issue and a pivot point around which major “policy” decisions are made, both within the public and the private family spheres. The family asks “But what if Mom should fall?” and places her in a nursing home to assure that she won’t. And how is her fall prevented in the nursing home? – by tying her to a wheelchair and calling it “up, with restraints”. Another wise and creative old informant of ours, Milton, is aware of this death delaying tactic and prefers, as he says, “to just slide into the floor” when it’s his time.

Hack is a man like Jack Beechum (note 3). A man with a sense of scale. A man who, like the child, sees the small wild things and, with the wisdom of years, sees the traces of events much larger than those in our small lives – the ancient trees, the washed out valleys. In the nursing home, he carries on this way of being in the world. Amid the rushing and clanging, the hard shiny surfaces of the nursing home, Hack moves in a somewhat different but parallel dimension. A natural man in a somewhat unnatural environment, Hack maintains his equanimity and only rarely criticizes what he sees around him. Once, he reports, they got mad at him for trying to catch a man who was falling. “They’d have to cut my arms off to keep me from doing that!” he says.

In our ethnographic freeze frames, we often portray informants as static beings whose lives have neither value nor existence beyond our fieldwork. As I write (in 1999), Hack has resumed his “horizontal journey” and moved out of the nursing home to a small apartment in a nearby small town. “There’s everything I need”, he explains, “a park across the street and a tavern that’s‘sposed to sell tenderloins this big (showing me with his hands),” I’m anxious to visit him andcarry on. “It’s number eight,” he says.”



  1. William Least-Heat Moon writes of the hedge apple in his book PrairyErth, an absolutely remarkable history of place – Chase County, Kansas. After speaking of the unusual fruit of the tree, he notes: “It is, of course, the wood of Maclura (pomifera) that men have for several thousand years admired: one of the heaviest on the continent, a cubic foot of it in a natural state weighs more than half that of an equal size chunk of limestone, and is nearly as hard, taking the edge off a lathe chisel or saw blade immediately; yet the wood is two and a half times stronger than white oak while still marvelously flexible: an Osage orange bow made from a good sapling properly seasoned and strung with bison sinew could drive a dogwood arrow up to the fletching into a buffalo, and to this day some archers believe the wood superior to yew, the stuff of the famed English longbow. (1991:283).
  2. Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. (original English trans. 1964). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon.
  3. Berry, Wendell. 1974. The Memory of Old Jack. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.



A been awhile blog

November 25, 2015

I haven’t blogged in awhile. This year has been hectic, hard to find time to reflect – with new knees, family illness, etc. Nothing unusual for those of us in my age group. Yet, several times over the course of the year I have found myself saying “I need to blog about that.” As a follower of the late sociologist Herbert Blumer – “meaning arises out of social interaction” – I should note that my blog ideas are never truly my own, but typically the result of an interesting conversation with others.

Since June, my “adventures” have taken me from Bristol, England (International Making Cities Livable Conference) to Knoxville, Tennessee (Tennessee Livability Summit) and Columbus, Indiana along the way (Pitman Institute for Aging Well SEEK 2015 conference). I am struck by the increasingly global nature of the discussion of “communities for all ages and abilities.” I am proud that, in Indiana, with the new Indiana Lifelong Coalition, we are trying to be intentional in our efforts to bridge gaps across the aging and disability communities.

Yet, despite the global character of the demographic challenges, read “opportunities”, I have come to believe that most of the solutions will be local, not global in nature. If grand solutions are forthcoming, I feel it may be through the accretion of thousands of local innovations, what Nabeel Hamdi calls “small change” (2004. London: EARTHSCAN). I don’t disagree with my friend Kathryn Lawler’s admonition to “go big” with state level policies around important changes needed in transportation, health care, pension systems, housing, and design (Public Policy Aging Report (2015) 25 (1): 30-33 ). I am an old-fashioned Roosevelt Democrat who feels that governments can do big and wonderful things. Yet, at the same time, I find myself yearning for a Jeffersonian model of community that finds its character, its sense of place, its unique heart and soul at the local level.

Can we reconcile the big change/small change ways of thinking?

The WHO Network of Age-friendly Communities now includes 287 cities around the world. While WHO won’t be the fount of big global change, the Network will, or at least has the potential. In other words, linking and learning from local innovations will be key – the global equivalent of Herbert Blumer’s meaningful interactions.

Here at Indiana University in Bloomington, a group of 25 faculty, researchers, designers, artists, and community practitioners have come together to propose a Center on Global Aging. We envision an interdisciplinary and participatory initiative that can reach out to local communities in Indiana and around the world to “co-create” good places for all ages and abilities. We won’t eschew attention to emergent big policies, but will pay attention to the potential positive connection between local and global change. We are not organizing our project around a medical, needs-based model of aging but, rather, around the idea that older adults and people with disabilities are community assets.
What is needed is a knowledge and resource base that enables change at the local level. The resources should, likely, flow from the richer to the poorer nations. The knowledge can flow in both directions, as local communities, tapping the wisdom and treasure of aging and disability, learn how to solve problems around mobility, health and wellbeing, housing, social isolation, caregiving and nutrition. Hence, the Center will focus on four domains of innovation: creativity, technology, community health and economic security. We will argue that co-creation of change through these means can extend productive years and reduce the period of dependency at the end of life, while, in fact, helping define what a good life, and a good death, is all about.

I hope to report back regarding the funding of our center, but, as my parents always said: “We’ll see.”

Design for a Small (Aging) Planet

March 30, 2015

small planet

I am looking forward to an exciting and stimulating symposium to be held here in Bloomington, April 30-May 1. Leading edge thinkers and practitioners will address design issues “from closet to community”, helping to make concrete contributions to this growing notion of aging-as-place.
Check out the registration details (it’s cheap) and the speaker line-up here: http://www.iidc.indiana.edu/cacdesign

Our block of reserved rooms at the Indiana Memorial Union on the beautiful Indiana University campus will be released on April 3, so please register now if interested!

I just returned from the American Society on Aging annual conference in Chicago, where age and ability-friendly sessions were very popular – a far cry from 10 years ago! Rebecca Johnson from Northwestern University did a great job of organizing a session I was in – 70 people, a full room. The first time I ever presented on the topic (guessing 1998) it was scheduled in the very last, Sunday morning slot. I had two people in the audience.

I also had the wonderful privilege of a side trip to the Austin neighborhood with Kristin Bodiford, Cathy and Michael Sykes to visit with Miss Mary Peery, 90-year-old founder of the local intergenerational community garden initiative. See Kristin’s Facebook page for all the details. Kristin is much more adept than I with social media.

On Placemaking: An Anthropologist’s Perspective

March 13, 2015

Preserving People – Preserving Place

July 10, 2014
The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

The Ward-Franzmann House circa 1840

I believe there is a natural fit between the movement to create age and ability-friendly communities and historic preservation. This may have grown from my lifelong interest in all things old. My house, above, and I are growing older together, and, as it seems, both entering the winter of life. It’s a good fit. My personal passions and biases aside, nevertheless, I feel a case can be made that proponents of these two movements have much to say to each other and then much to do together.

Indiana Landmarks is one of the most highly respected and the largest private statewide preservation group in the U.S. There is another story there, of course, about leadership, vision, commitment and creativity. This last quality, I believe, helps account for its recent support of a day-long conference in Indianapolis on the subject of this old people-old place connection. Co-organized by another uniquely statewide Indiana treasure called the Indiana Philanthropy Alliance, the conference brought together preservationists and aging/disability professionals in what may have been the first meeting of its kind in the U.S.

Presenters addressed many of the technical issues surrounding accessible modifications for historic homes and commercial properties, the potential for a virtuous relationship between history and the ADA, and financial resources communities can use for historic preservation that benefits older populations, including Main Street restoration.

My contribution was to tender some thoughts about the relationship between the preservation of place and the preservation of community memory. In many ways, they are an identity. Place is the concrete expression of community memory and old people are its vessel, or, perhaps I have that backwards. It reads both ways because it is an identity. In any case, preservation of place is more likely to occur when it retains a presence in community memory. Buildings that fall into history without those personal connections to our current lives are more at risk for destruction unless, perhaps, they exude some extraordinary beauty or character, or are associated distantly with an officially recognized event or person. The position of older people in a community as holders of memory valorizes their role when other sources of status have diminished. A comment by Scott Roden in my previous blog on memory is evidence of this, “I had an elderly friend who passed away last year–he was very influential in my life. He once told me that his job now (at 85) was to remember…”

I try to avoid nostalgia; hope the Golden Age is something in the future, not the past. I am not naïve about the dark side of the places we have created. In a folklore field school we organized several years ago to study the Bloomington Town Square, we were curious about the lack of stories told about on-the-square experiences by older African-Americans. While the town square on Saturday nights in the 40’s was truly hopping, African-Americans, we were told, were not welcome. What was, and remains, a truly central and iconic feature of the place we call Bloomington was, despite the democratic image, an exclusive environment. I like to think that has changed, but it is something we should never forget.

Gerontologists often argue in favor of a policy called “aging in place”, understanding that the personal preference of most older people is to stay put. I would agree that people need the places, for the benefits to their social and physical well-being. I would add, however, that the places need the people just as much. When people stay put, the places benefit. Preserving place and preserving people is one job, not two.

And the house? Linda and I grow old together there and I am so lucky to dwell in her love as well.

Now, as a person also trying to attract valuable older people to our wonderful community, leaving their own, this presents some professional conflicts. I am working on this question and can try to pose a resolution of this paradox in another blog.

Memory and Place as Shared Experience

May 2, 2014

As I approach 65 years on this planet, May 24, 2014, I find my dreams increasingly populated by people from my past. I’m happy to say that the dreams are uniformly pleasant, if typically inscrutable. Gerontologists tend towards a view of memory as a psychological phenomenon and I suppose these dreams are a form of memory, an interior experience. Yet, as for these people, I believe it is their “thereness” that perhaps carries the meaning, aside from any symbolic or psychological interpretation one could craft. Better said, it is their “hereness” again in my life that is the key to understanding.

In a world of individuals self-absorbed with personal growth, pop psychology, and aging as a uniquely internal experience, memory becomes equated with the self and, conversely, the loss of memory is seen as the loss of self. But there is an alternative way to view memory.

Not simply “self-serving,” memory exists in the social world as a cultural resource – a device by which people do things together. Memory doesn’t merely represent or signify me, or the group, but helps to build it, to sustain it in an active, constitutive process. This does not require us to ignore the personal uses of memory but challenges us to understand memory as it lives outside of people’s heads and, I would argue, in people’s lived, collective, and bodily experiences of place. *

Having recently attended a Reunion of the Hobart High School Class of ’67, I can report that, in these circumstances, in conversation, we sometimes quickly run out of things to say, especially when we realize our lives and political convictions may have diverged significantly. I think the pleasure I experience from these reunions is not derived from what is said, nor what we have done but from the fact that we are, once again, together in place.

So memory and, I would suggest, “sense of place” is not a psychological phenomenon that can be measured. It exists only in its manifestation, its emergence into the real world. So many concepts in gerontology – memory, attachment, home, identity, age itself – are characterized (and measured) as individual and subjective phenomena, I have to agree with philosophers who would see the very science itself as representative of the modern project of self-absorption. We see the same history in the field of disability, where disability was, and often is, seen as a quality of the person. I am happy to report this field is increasingly moving towards an understanding of the reality of disability being found not in the individual but in the relationship between the individual and the environment. Would that gerontology move in the same direction.

About memory, Molly Schuchat once told me, “It only counts if you share it.” As for being old, I would say it is not psychological metaphors that we need, but locational ones. “Oldness” is a place-based phenomenon.


*paragraph adapted from Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America, 2009, p 85 ff. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO)

 See Phil’s Adventures in May 2009 for Turning Sixty 🙂

Being and Dwelling: in praise of occupational therapists

March 20, 2014

Recently, I had the privilege of participating in a small conference on Palliative Care convened by the Center for Practical Bioethics (https://www.practicalbioethics.org/) with support from Kathy Greenlee, head of the Administration on Community Living and Asst. Secretary (HHS) of the Administration on Aging. The presentations were outstanding and gave me some new insights into the role of the health care system in communities for a lifetime. I was under the false impression that palliative care was all about end of life care when, in fact, it’s about quality of life, whether one is near death or not. While most participants came from the fields of medicine, I was invited to offer a “community” perspective on the issues. I would like to share my comments with the Phil’s Adventure audience, and solicit yours in return.

Being and Dwelling

In praise of occupational therapists

In the final days of his life, unable to dictate and suffering from immense pain of throat cancer, U.S. Grant scribbled a few final thoughts…

“I do not sleep though I sometimes doze a little. If up I am talked to and in my efforts to answer cause pain. The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

I find the quote evocative for its relevance to an understanding of the concept of home in the lifeworld of elders. In short, if home is in any way an object, its meaning only derives from use. Hence, as outsiders, we must pay constant attention to movement in the lifeworld of elders, which is a challenge to our stereotypical view of old age as a period of stasis and rest.

Consider this beautiful passage from Wendell Berry’s The Memory of Old Jack, its description of the old farmer Jack Beechum and the identity between self and environment that is created by movement.

He had known no other place. From babyhood he had moved in the openings and foldings of the old farm as familiarly as he moved inside his clothes … Now when he walked in his fields and pastures and woodlands he was tramping into his mind the shape of the land, his thought becoming indistinguishable from it, so that when he came to die, his intelligence would subside into it like his own spirit.

When I was Director of Senior Health services at an Indiana hospital, we often asked seniors “What do you want the health care system to do for you?” Invariably, the answer would be…”to help me manage at home as long as I can”, what Marian Barnes calls “being well enough.”  Seniors saw the concepts of health and home as an identity, one unrecognized by both the health care and the housing systems I would add.

With this in mind, we undertook ethnographic research on the meaning of home for older adults in our community. A deep map of home emerged, organized around several basic elements.

First, home is a complex concept, far more significant than “house.” In our research we encountered individuals who have lived in the same house for over 75 years! It requires a virtual archaeology of memory to peel back the deep sediments of 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 tenant walks through her life. Photos, furniture stains, knick knacks, postcards, window vistas, even dents in the woodwork signify and embody important events and individuals in her life. How could she be expected to easily leave behind the door jamb marked by a pencil with the advancing height of her children and grandchildren?

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 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, where well-being is not an individual state but is generated through relationships. As Berry says, in another essay, “Community is the smallest unit of health.”

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.

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?

Understanding the lifeworld of older persons from the inside is an essential starting point for design, whether of environments or of services. This requires close observation and deep listening. Psychiatrist Robert Coles, trained by physician poet William Carlos Williams, spent some time with Nellie Benoit, over 90 years of age, in preparation for his book Old and On Their Own .

Nellie reports that they say she’s legally blind with glaucoma and “all I can see is ‘forms’ or ‘outlines’ of objects. But I say (to myself) that they are way, way off track. I can see a whole lifetime of scenes, people and places, all the details, in black and white and in color, even if their medical instruments say I can’t!”

For Nellie, the sun is her daily companion. “…without the sun, the whole planet would die… so when I can catch sight of that light, creeping in here, I talk to it, I say ‘Welcome and please make yourself at home… I say I know you’ve got other folks to visit, and I don’t want to get possessive, and try to hoard all your treasure, and not share it with others – but it’s so nice to have you here and I’d like you to know that.” …Now after a while, I can feel the sun getting ready to leave. Things will cool down! Things get darker! I’ll start gabbing again. I’ll talk to that fading light; it gets dimmer, saying good-bye, and I feel my heart sinking. But I try to be cheerful, and express my gratitude: ‘Thank you ever so much’, I say. ‘So long and I hope and pray I’ll be here, and see you tomorrow’. I say, ‘You’ve been kind, to visit us, and I sure wish you a safe and sound trip.’ I say. ‘What joy you’ve brought us, and we are all so grateful, ‘ I say.”

Though Nellie herself moves only so slowly through her house, she participates in a daily round and shares a path with the sun. In fact, home is the path.

Among philosophers, Martin Heidegger has spoken extensively about the identification of self and place, of dwelling and thinking. He notes that the etymological history of the word dwelling, bauen, in German, means to build, but has as its cognate the word bin, as in ich bin, I am, du bist, you are, the imperative form bis, to be:

What then does ich bin mean? The old word bauen, to which the bin belongs, answers: ich bin, du bist mean: I dwell, you dwell. The way in which you are and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is Buan, dwelling. To be human … means to dwell (1971, 147).

He proceeds to elaborate on the old definition of home to mean to remain, to stay in a place and compares it to the Old Saxon woun, which also means to be at peace. Hence, the word home comes to mean retreat, a place of safety and security – dwelling as a noun, not verb.  Heidegger misses the possibility of home as path, so beautifully enacted by Nellie.

If being and dwelling are identities, and if home and travel are not antithetical, it follows that achieving a sense of place in old age does not require “aging in place”, in its narrow sense of aging in the house. Aging with a sense of place can be accomplished in many ways. The question is not whether staying put or relocating south is the right solution. The question is… can we fill our spaces with meaning and memory? Can we attain a sense of agency, where what we do makes a difference? Can we dwell in the other? Can we transform space into a place that reflects who we imagine ourselves to be? This is why the occupational therapist, working exclusively at the fulcrum of home and health, may be the most important member of the palliative care team.

In the end, we return to the starting point – home is a verb, not a noun. Home is created by going in and out of the circles of life that surround us. I have found no better definition of this premise than one provided by a poetry group of Adult Day Care participants with dementia:

I have several homes

I know a home is a home when I can

Go there


And go out again.

Home is where the dog goes

When it gets too cold to roam

When winter’s coming on

That’s when I want to go



Phil Stafford, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist and Director of the Center on Aging and Community at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. staffor@indiana.edu. He blogs at Phil’s Adventures in Elderburbia: https://agingindiana.wordpress.com/


 References and readings on the meaning of home: a brief list

Bachelard, Gaston. 1994. (trans.) The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon.

Barnes, Marian, Taylor, D and Ward, L (2013) ‘Being well enough in old age’, Critical Social Policy, vol.

33, no. 3, 473-493.

Berry, Wendell. 1974. The Memory of Old Jack. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

___1995. Health is Membership, in Another Turn of the Crank. New York: Counterpoint

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly, and Eugene Rochberg-Halton. 1981. The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Coles, Robert. 1997. Old and on Their Own. With photographs by Alex Harris and Thomas Roma. New York: Norton.

Ekerdt, David K. and Julie F. Sargent. 2006. Family Things: Attending the household disbandment of older adults. Journal of Aging Studies 20: 193-205.

Gubrium, Jaber. 1993. Speaking of Life: Horizons of Meaning for Nursing Home Residents. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Gubrium, Jaber F. and Andrea Sankar, eds. 1990. The Home Care Experience: Ethnography and Policy.

Newbury Park: Sage.

Heidegger,M. 1971 (orig. 1927). Building, Dwelling, Thinking. In Poetry, language, thought. A. Hofstadter, (trans.).New York: Harper and Row.

Jackson, Michael. 1995. At Home in the World. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Korosec-Serfaty, Perla 1985. Experience and Use of the Dwelling. In Home Environments. Irwin

Altman and Carol M. Werner, eds., New York: Plenum Press.

Marcus, Claire Cooper. 1995. House as a Mirror of Self: Exploring the Deeper Meaning of Home. Berkeley: Conari Press.

Sanders, Scott Russell. 1993. Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World. Boston: Beacon.

Snyder, Gary. 1990. The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Stafford, Philip B.  2001. When Community Planning Becomes Community Building: Place-Based Activism and the Creation of Good Places to Grow Old. In L.F. Heumann, M.E.    McCall, D.P. Boldy, eds., Empowering Frail Elderly People. Wesport, CT: Praeger.

___2003. Homebodies: Voices of Place in a North American Community”. In Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture., Philip B. Stafford, ed., Santa Fe: SAR Press.

___2009. Aging in the Hood: Creating and Sustaining Elder Friendly Environments. In The Cultural Context of Aging: Worldwide Perspectives. Jay Sokolovsky, ed., Westport:


___2009. Living Large while Living Small: The Spatial Life of Aging Boomers. In Boomer Bust? Economic and Political Issues of the Graying Society. Robert B. Hudson, ed., Westport: Praeger.

___2009. Elderburbia: Aging with a Sense of Place in America. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1977. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.







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