A truism has developed within the senior housing industry over the last couple of decades: older adults want to age in place. This is a common conception among the general public as well and has served as the foundation of movies such as Pixar’s Up. While the concept has spurred the development of important improvements to home design and home care services, among other areas, it may in fact disenfranchise some of the most vulnerable older adults.
Aging in place takes for granted a safe environment, which is not the reality for older adults living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in cities across America. Facing problems of greater concern than an inadequate banister, these adults are commonly the victims of crimes. They are viewed as easy targets because they may be physically weak, and they benefit from steady, if meager, social security incomes and life savings. Fear and social isolation are simply logical reactions to the difficult circumstances in which poor older adults often find themselves. Clearly, aging in place is not the best option in these cases.
In an effort to broaden the gerontological discussion about the factors that influence an older adult’s decision to move or stay in his or her home, researcher Mary Byrnes conducted qualitative interviews and observational fieldwork at a Detroit apartment complex financed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program. Using sometimes heart-wrenching quotations, statistical observations of the themes expressed during interviews, and demographic data, Byrnes demonstrates that there is a greater variety of older adult experiences than is often studied, with important differences according to gender, race, and class.
From the interviews she conducted, Byrnes distilled four themes about the residents’ decisions to move: changing bodies (physical or mental difficulties), change in relationship status (becoming a widow), changing neighborhoods (perceptions of crime and race), and a nice new place (desire for safety and cleanliness). While deteriorating mental and physical capabilities are commonly considered the primary, and are perhaps the most studied, motivations for moving, Byrnes found the three other themes were all more commonly reported by the very low-income African American older adults in her study. The most reported theme that emerged from her interviews was nice new place.
Byrnes noted an interesting difference in responses between men and women. Most women moved in order to live in a nice new place, followed closely by a concern about the changing neighborhood. Both of these themes indicate dissatisfaction with the previous social and physical environment, but not their own physical limitations within the environmental layout or design. In contrast, a majority of men moved to Section 202 housing due to a change in relationship, most often the death of a spouse and in one case the break with a daughter. Yet none of the women moved for that reason.
In further contrast with common conceptions of age-segregated housing, the study participants expressed gratitude for their new living situations. Byrnes’ research, for which she won the GE New Investigator Award, serves to remind us that there is a diversity of experiences among older adults that has yet to be fully explored but should not be disregarded.