Understanding the Essence of Home: Older People’s Experience of Home in Australia
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Desleigh M. de Jonge * , Andrew Jones , Rhonda Phillips2 & Magdalene Chung1
1 2

1 †


School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia Institute for Social Science Research and AHURI Queensland Research Centre, The University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia

Abstract This qualitative inquiry explores the experiences of community-living older people in Australia living in their home environment. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with 30 older people, aged 56–90, from three states in Australia. Purposive or maximum variation sampling was used to recruit people with diverse characteristics in terms of age, gender, living situation, dwelling type, tenure and location (urban/rural). Older people in this study stated that they were interested in the capacity of the house to support their many and varied occupations, particularly their ability to care for others. They also enjoyed the independence and autonomy that living in their own home afforded them. The location of the home in the community provided general convenience and offered opportunities for social connectedness. The home environment and the surrounding community also created an ambience and afforded people a particular lifestyle. The importance of the history of the home environment and the emotional connection older people have with the dwelling was another prevalent theme. Future research is recommended to investigate whether these views of the home are representative of other groups of older people and which aspects of the home they seek to retain when adapting their homes or relocating. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Received 21 September 2010; Revised 22 November 2010; Accepted 23 November 2010 Keywords home modification; gerontology; geriatric occupational therapy *Correspondence Desleigh M. de Jonge, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4068, Australia.

Email: d.dejonge@uq.edu.au

Published online 12 January 2011 in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) DOI: 10.1002/oti.312

As a growing number and proportion of older people seek to age in place, occupational therapists are becoming increasingly concerned with enabling them to remain actively engaged in valued roles and meaningful occupations in the home and community (Iwarsson, 2004). The home environment is the context of many daily occupations, and is consequently the location for and the focus of a range of occupational therapy interOccup. Ther. Int. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

ventions (Gitlin, 2003). Occupational therapy has long recognized the importance of remaining engaged in meaningful activities, and the role of the environment in supporting or hindering occupational performance (Law et al., 1996; Pedretti, 1996). However, it has less appreciation of how the home environment provides people with occupational opportunities, freedom and a lifestyle that allows them to enjoy being at home. Further, the profession has not yet developed an in-depth understanding of how this very personal and

The social experiences of the home can often be the most important aspect of home for older people.. 1984. 2004). occupation and environment (Law et al.. Heywood. 2000). 2004) of older people. occupations that allow older people to be helpful or useful to others have been found to be important to older people (Haak. 1988. and they establish a sense of permanence.. Stone 1998). Over time. 1989). caregiving and highly valued social roles such as family member and friend (McKenna et al. as people’s connection with the home grows. This understanding into the lived experience of ‘being’ in the home alerts occupational therapists to consider all aspects of this unique and very personal environment when providing services in the home or designing interventions directed at supporting ‘doing’. 1988). 2001). 2003). domestic. Time use studies reveal that older people spend the majority of their time engaged in personal care. 2002). belonging and sense of self. inaccessible toilets and bathrooms and limited space create disability (Oldman and Beresford. independence (Frain and Carr. Home has been described by humanistic geographers as ‘place’ (Rowles. 1998). 2001). The physical design of the home can seriously constrain what older people can do and how they feel about themselves and their home (Heywood et al.Older People’s Experience of Home de Jonge et al.. 1996) have alerted occupational therapists to the role of the environment in occupational engagement and performance. 1991.. Environmental psychologists have explored the relationship between older people and their home environment. older people who are able to retain control over decisions experience better life satisfaction than those who are not involved in managing their affairs (Johannesen et al. For many older 40 people. 1999). The social experiences arising from the rhythm of daily interactions with neighbourhood and community creates a social insideness where people feel they know each other well (Rowles. 1989). Ltd. 2000. study. Fange et al.. 2007) and can exert autonomy and control over their use of time and space (Peace and Holland. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons. 2003). In high-level connections. Rowles and Watkins. 1989). Occup. objects and features become an extension of the self and subsequently. complex environment affords people many experiences. characterized by feeling comfortable or ‘at one’ with one’s environment (Rowles. 2004). the home environment supports a range of valued roles and occupations especially as people age and spend increasing amounts of time at home (Gitlin. narrow doorways and corridors. Low-level connections with the home are defined in terms of the utility it affords and the familiarity of the environment and the objects within it (Rapoport. 2007) and engagement in valued and meaningful activities leads to greater life satisfaction (Johannesen et al. 2004) and compromise the safety (Trickey et al. 2003). More recent studies indicate that older people also engage in paid and volunteer work. 1982) and the mutual transaction between the person.. 2007). Although primarily viewed as a place of personal care and domestic activities. Houses with stairs. Hammer. In particular. Ther. Theories highlighting the impact of the environment on older people’s affect and adaptive behaviour (Lawton. finding cognitive. These spaces also acquire meaning as the consciousness of past events accumulates (Rowles and Watkins. The home environment holds a central place in the lives of older people (Dahlin-Ivanoff et al. Int. The memories of events become closely associated with the space transforming a house into a diorama of the family’s history. home is one of the few remaining environments where they feel they have control over their lives (Haak.. a representation of the self before merging with the individual to become a part of him or her (Rubenstein. 2005) lying on a continuum of place-related meaning (Rapoport. they develop ‘autobiographical insidedness’ where they become a part of the place and the place a part of them (Rowles. Dahlin-Ivanoff et al. leisure and social activities in and around the home (Horgas et al.. 1980. It has been noted that traditional residential design architecturally disables people as they age (Hanson. 1993.. behavioural and emotional aspects (Oswald and Wahl. 2007) as a context for many valued roles and activities (Haak. Being ‘in place’ or ‘at home’ is defined as being in a state of existence. . Fange et al. Research confirms that older people greatly value their independence in daily activities (Haak. Rubenstein. which contribute greatly to their well-being. resulting in significant numbers of older people living in large. 2000). 2007). 1999). 2007). People then begin to personalize the environment and assign meaning to objects and features as they become associated with various people and events (Rubenstein. 1996) and well-being (Heywood. Furthermore. Fange et al. The purpose of this study is to describe the aspects of home that are important to community-living older people in parts of Australia.. old homes that present ongoing challenges to their safety and independence (Tinker.

2008).de Jonge et al. Victoria and South Australia (Jones et al. Data analysis Content analysis was undertaken on the transcripts by examining each line of text and identifying key statements. seven were men and 23 were women. Pseudonyms have been used to protect the identity of the participants.9. their experience of home maintenance and modification services and their perceptions of the impact of modifications on their lives. Voluntaryinformed consent was gained from all participants and all data remained private and confidential. Doncaster. . Victoria. their expressed modification needs. what they considered to be important about the dwelling. living situation. clustered these into emergent themes. Profiles of potential participants were developed and distributed via home maintenance and modification services in the selected regions. This study was approved by the Behavioural and Social Sciences Ethics Research Committee of The University of Queensland. While approximately half of the 30 participants had been living in their home for over 30 years. interview transcripts were read independently by each of the authors who identified key statements and assigned each a descriptive label. Thirty people aged 56–90 years were invited to participate in the study. Participants Participants were identified via existing home modification services and purposively chosen to maximize the diversity of the sample in terms of age. Findings Key themes were developed inductively from the 30 transcripts to reflect the importance of the home environment in the lives of the participants. It uses a descriptive phenomenological approach to explore and describe the role of the home environment in older people’s lives. namely Queensland. A total of 30 older people with diverse characteristics were interviewed to gain an understanding of their experience of home. Older People’s Experience of Home Method Data for this qualitative study were collected as part of the Australian Housing and Urban Institute (AHURI) funded investigation into the experiences of older people who have received home maintenance and modification (HMM) services in three states across Australia. None of the participants had any previous or ongoing contact with the interviewers. The discussion centred around the length of time they had lived in the dwelling. Ltd. This study reports on the experiences of older people of their home environments. Participants ranged from 56 to 90 years of age with the mean age being 77. between 6 months and 23 years ago. Participants were asked a series of open-ended questions to allow less structured conversation or narrative to occur. South Australia and Victoria to ensure representation of a diversity of home modification service delivery systems. 2000) was used to assist with data management. Data collection occurred over a period of 6 months with each participant being interviewed once in their own home. 2006). Semi-structured interviews were conducted in the homes of participants by therapists with experience in narrative interviewing and providing home modification services. The authors then met to discuss recurring patterns and. through consensus. QSR N-Vivo Version 1. Since independent assessment of transcripts adds to the reliability of the data analysis (Pope and Mays. Int.. who they lived with. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons.2 (QRS International. Of the 30 participants interviewed. gender. reasonable numbers of participants with different combinations of characteristics. Ther. dwelling type and tenure and location (urban/rural). and a matrix was created to record the characteristics of the sample to ensure a range of characteristics were included. Potential participants and people interested in the study contacted the researchers directly. A profile of the participants interviewed is shown in Table I. Five themes emerged: 1) capacity of the house to support valued 41 Data collection A total of 30 older people were sought to ensure reasonable spread of characteristics of the participants and Occup. the other half had moved into their current home more recently. Interviews were approximately 1 hour and were audio-taped and transcribed verbatim. what they liked about living there and how they mostly spent their time at home. Australia) software (Qualitative Solutions and Research. The sample was recruited from three states and territories namely Queensland. Sixteen participants lived alone and 11 of the 14 couples participated in the interview together.

gently rising slope. level entry from street and carport. 3) social connectedness. Table I. 4) ambience of the home and lifestyle afforded. level block. the third bedroom is my office . 1) Capacity of the house to support valued roles and meaningful occupations A number of participants valued the convenience of the house and the layout of the rooms supported various occupations. Single-level house – four bedrooms Single-storey house. (Cynthia. all rooms upstairs. shower over bath.Older People’s Experience of Home de Jonge et al. show over bath. The upstairs 42 laundry – it’s part of the house and I haven’t got to go downstairs to wash because with the washing machine that means you’re going up and down. cluttered Ground floor one-bedroom unit. 2) independence and autonomy. up and down whereas here I can go on with something else and go back to the laundry again without any trouble. rail at the front yard Ground floor unit Low-set house Ground floor unit Ground floor unit High-set house Ground floor unit House First-floor unit Double-storey house. 14 steps up. n = 30 Person Janice Karen Harriett Stephan and Maria Shirley Tania Cynthia Margaret Clarissa Harriett Arthur Joyce Lenora Charles George Peter and Francis Rose Janet Judy Rhonda Genevieve Malcolm Maureen Martin Cassandra Alicia Michelle Margaret Sharon Doris Douglas Gender F F F F F F F F F F M F F M M M F F F F F M F M F F F F F F M Age 56 60 69 72 72 74 76 77 77 77 78 78 78 78 79 79 79 79 80 80 81 81 82 83 83 83 84 86 89 90 90 Living situation Alone With spouse (carer) With spouse (carer) With spouse Alone With spouse Alone With spouse Alone Alone With spouse With spouse (carer) With spouse (carer) With spouse Alone With spouse Alone Alone With spouse Alone Alone With spouse Alone With spouse Alone With spouse Alone Alone Alone Alone With spouse Dwelling type and location Rented unit. laundry upstairs. aged 76) Having a home with the space to accommodate a range of activities was also seen as important. Fifteen steps to back entrance. first floor Two-storey house. three bedrooms. four steps from bedroom to bathroom Low-set house – slab on ground Unit High-set house 10 steps at rear. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons. brick One-bedroom unit Low-set house Two-storey house. . three bedrooms Low-set house Single-level house Single-storey house on house acreage. toilet in bathroom. lives with husband downstairs. . Ltd. low at front. See. I mean having the carport on the same level I can just bring shopping straight in there. son lives upstairs. Int. and 5) history and emotional connection with the home. We’re Occup. two steps down into lounge and sunroom Two-storey town house. we’ve got the front bedroom as our main bedroom. level access inside. lives upstairs. level access from all sides Three-storey house on steep rising slope. Characteristics of the participants. Ther. over toilet frame Low-set house Low-set house Low-set house roles and meaningful occupations. . Two-storey house. four steps with rail to entrance Low-set house One-storey house. the second bedroom is Lara’s artist room.

The garden. . I’ve got all my network of friends in the area and I wouldn’t like to have to move right away at this Occup. For one participant. aged 72). shops and other facilities such as the bowls club. (Harriett. You don’t get that in a small unit. (Arthur. aged 56) 2) Independence and autonomy Many participants prized the freedom and autonomy they experienced in their own home. . remaining in her own home was central to her sense of independence. We have a proper house here with three bedrooms. I’ll fight till the last for that (to stay here) (Shirley. . I have felt safe in this block of flats since I came here. 3) Social connectedness Many participants were pleased that their current home was well connected with community services. Int. what I want to do and all that. (Janice. . (Genevieve. in my house. there is a good bus service along here. . I’ve got all my support group around this area. . there’s no one can do things for him like a wife can (Malcolm’s wife. So that’s why I stay really. age 83) An outside area also enabled participants to retain meaningful occupations such as gardening and looking after a much loved pet. I think the main thing I like about (my home) is just if I need help. This included transport. Older People’s Experience of Home using the whole house . . one participant noted. (Shirley. aged 81). my family are close. (Peter. when I want to do. the main centres. age 77) The home also enabled participants to care for their loved ones in the way they liked. The capacity of the home to accommodate visiting family and maintain valued roles was also highly valued. . sort of. So the house itself is ideal. general practitioners and hydrotherapy pool. I have freedom and I don’t have to answer to anybody . . (Cynthia. We had our twelve children here.de Jonge et al. aged 78) The atmosphere afforded by the community was also identified as being important. I can keep an eye on him . It’s a seven-room house and we’re using them all. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons. Well the house is central in position. It started as a nothing house – and it 43 . front garden and looking up at the sky and the back garden with the lovely birds . (I do) what I want to do in my garden. I mean. We could sit here and watch hundreds of butterflies going round and round. just sitting at the kitchen table and looking out at the garden at the birds (Tania. There are five older women including myself and a young Asian couple and I just don’t feel threatened by the area. (Alicia. 5) History and emotional connection with the house A number of participants were still living in homes in which they raised their own family. When discussing her decision to live where she did. Ltd. pops in probably every second or third day just for a few minutes because it’s not far from. aged 74) We’ve got the greenery. it’s very close to the shops and transportation which is very good. We have got the railway of course. while others noted the importance of the environment surrounding the house to their experience of home. which mean we can have our grandchildren back here to stay. you get traffic noise instead. aged 72) 4) Ambience of the home and lifestyle afforded Some participants appreciated feeling comfortable within the home. aged 76) Participants also reported that they valued being close to social networks such as friends and family. I think I was lucky to get the situation that I am close to the family because my daughter . aged 79) The importance of having helpful and friendly neighbours was acknowledged by many. aged 81) stage and sort of make new friends again. . Ther. There’s three single older women and a couple.

We’ve decided what rooms we’d have and we built them over time (Lenora. contributes to older people’s ability to participate in a broad range of valued occupations such as leisure. . Int. Everything I look at – memories. The best part of the house is here because Martin did it (Martin’s wife. which often dictate when and how activities are undertaken thus intruding on the home as a place of control and autonomy and potentially compromising the individual’s sense of self and satisfaction with life (Johannesen et al. . where and what kinds of activities were performed’ even as their function declined (Haak. it had become a symbol of their independence and autonomy. 2007. 2) Autonomy/independence The home environment is recognized as being central to maintaining people’s autonomy and independence (Heywood. to do a variety of activities and to remain socially and occupationally engaged. Some researchers have found that home modifications done without regard for the entire experience of home can impact negatively on people’s self-image and connection with the home as well as on their routines and sense of heritage (Heywood. 2002. Ther. For some older people in this study. Its capacity to support their roles and occupations afforded them the freedom to do what they wanted. Dahlin-Ivanoff et al.Older People’s Experience of Home de Jonge et al. rather than focusing on specific performance issues related to personal care and domestic activities alone (Heywood. This confirms the perceptions of very old Swedes who also felt that home was a prerequisite to maintaining independence as it allowed them to retain control over ‘when.. The convenience of the layout of the home contributed to the ease with which daily activities could be undertaken and the space available enabled older 44 3) Social connectedness Older people clearly value being in close proximity to transport and facilities and being well connected to services in the community. When providing services within the home or making changes to the environment. little attention has previously been given to the importance of older peoples’ home environments in supporting valued social roles and occupations and other aspects of wellbeing. Everything is lovely memories. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons. Ltd. 2007). As found by Heywood (2005). there is a concern that essential meanings and connections could be compromised when focusing primarily on issues of safety and independence (Heywood et al. Discussion This study provides a foundation for understanding five aspects of home that are important to older people. Fange et al. this history provided rich memories of their past. 2005). older people appreciated having rooms and outside areas to accommodate visiting relatives and friends.’s (2007) findings that older people value occupations which allow them to help or contribute to the lives of other people. as well as inside and outside spaces. The home was a testament to her husband’s previous roles and contribution to their family’s comfort and security.. However. . For this reason. became our house . . A home . This control and freedom within the home is frequently compromised by in-home services. people to allocate rooms to enjoy meaningful activities and accommodate visiting family and friends. . older people regard a social network and a sense of security within a particular community as important aspects of home. this study confirms Haak. . 1) Support for roles and occupations While occupational therapy recognizes the role of the environment in supporting daily activities. Occup.19). 2007). it also provides an understanding of how the layout. In particular. it is important occupational therapy practitioners consider adjustments in the home holistically. Dahlin-Ivanoff et al. Tanner et al. when they wanted. p. The capacity of the home to support older people in caring for loved ones and pets was also seen as an important aspect of the home.. aged 74). aged 83). . These findings support previous research which identified home as the ‘locus and origin of participation’ for very old Swedes who live alone in the community (Haak. 2005. While some traditional housing structures proved challenging. All happy memories (Tania. and I love it. 2005). Happy memories. social and caring activities. For some. . However. how.. Remaining in the family home was particularly important to one couple when the husband acquired a debilitating health condition and was dependent on the care of his wife. Heywood. 2004). aged 78). while the locational requirements and convenience to community facilities has been long accepted as being important in supporting older people to remain living in the community (Stone.. 2005).

the reason for remaining in a home that presents increasing challenges was to be close to family. The depth and breadth of the responses. had a strong connection with their new place of residence. The findings of this study may not reflect the experiences or views of all people over 65 years. still provide a fuller understanding of the 45 5) Personal connection to the home Concerns have been raised about the aesthetics of home modifications and the embarrassment and stigma that result (Auriemma et al. Study participants’ attachment to their homes was often very strong. The consumers in this study had all accessed an HMM service. the capacity of the home to accommodate social activities and overnight visitors has not been previously recognized. 2004). the perceptions of older people who have not used an HMM service or who had utilized other resources. Little attention has been given to ensuring older people feel comfortable and safe in their home environment. age (two participants under age 65). it is important that therapists also support older people to maintain social roles and remain connected to their community. the home is a repository of cherished memories and provides a very life-enriching link with the past. 2007). sharing experiences and linking with the outside world as it becomes more difficult to leave the home and access experiences in the community (Haak. thereby diminishing the homely atmosphere of certain rooms (Lund and Nygard. exterior modifications can make the resident vulnerable to ridicule or violence when their homes are recognized as being occupied by someone who cannot defend themselves against an intruder Occup..de Jonge et al. 18 (2011) 39–47 © 2011 John Wiley & Sons. and therefore. home modifications often require objects of personal significance to be removed to make room for adaptations. which acknowledge the merging of the environment with the individual. Older People’s Experience of Home 1998). Very old people in Sweden have also described the importance of being among others. (Heywood. 1989). It would appear that supporting people to successfully age-in-place requires more than enabling people to perform routine tasks independently within the home. friendly neighbours. consumers were included among those interviewed. Older people value a home that is comfortable. such as the family. Limitations While efforts were made to ensure a wide diversity of HMM. 2005). 2000) and ‘embodiment’ (Rubenstein. Further studies are required to understand the views of older people with different priorities and cultural backgrounds. 2002). have not been captured. they will likely spend an increasing amount of time at home. it has not been acknowledged when looking to support people in their current home environment. While lifestyle choice has been referred to in relation to housing adjustments for older people (Hanson. For some. Even older people who moved into a new abode in later life. limitations in number (n = 30). This research supports Rowle’s theory (1991) that people feel ‘in place’ or ‘at home’ when they are comfortable or ‘at one’ with their environment. Hawkins and Stewart. .. Ltd. The relationship older people establish with their home raises questions about the capacity of therapists to make appropriate recommendations after a brief oneoff encounter and explain older people’s reluctance to accept recommendations which do not recognize the significance of the changes being made to their home. however. With the social aspects of home being so important to people’s experience of home. especially for those who chose to remain living in the home in which they raised their families. For many older people. It should be noted that people from rural or remote communities were not included in this study. 1999. Occupational therapy practitioners’ awareness of the depth of this relationship allows them to work closely with the householders so as not to disrupt or destroy aspects of their identity when introducing changes to the home and its routines. Ther. These findings confirm the very strong personal relationship between older people and their environment described in concepts such as ‘autobiographical insideness’ (Rowles. Int. Further. place of residence (three Australian states) and the act of self-selection limit generalization of results. 2005). 4) Ambience and lifestyle afforded As people age. Clapham. For many older people. friends and helpful. the home comes to symbolize who they are or represent who they once were and is therefore important to their sense of themselves. affords them a pleasant outlook and is located in a safe and supportive community. Dahlin-Ivanoff et al. their history and their image of themselves. Furthermore. 2001.

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