What Makes a Home Feel Like a Home? The Intersection of Emotion & Architecture for Older Adults

Close your eyes and imagine your favorite room in your home.

Now, imagine leaving that space and never being able to come back.

This brief thought exercise embodies a long-term reality for many older adults in the United States who must leave their homes due to cognitive or physical difficulties faced in their current living environment. Anecdotal evidence and research alike point to individuals (both young and old) experiencing difficulties with life change. And changes in living space and household items are no exception to this.

For older adults, moving to a new residence can be fraught with unique issues. Notably, a recent study argues that older adults who are relocating into senior living facilities deal with two issues that younger adults generally tend not to experience quite as much. The first issue is contemplating a lifetime’s accumulation of possessions. What goes in the garbage? What items are given to family members, and to whom? Which items are necessities and which are accessories to one’s life?

The second and related issue is that of space. Older adults who are relocating are typically moving into smaller spaces. This can act as just another reminder to them that their lives have reached their crescendo and are now into the decrescendo. With this in mind, the study examined how older adults in the midst of a relocation transition view their new space, and the hurdles that both senior living providers and residents face.

Explicitly, the author conducted an ethnographic study of 81 relocating older adults using a series of semi-structured interviews, observations, and document review. His findings suggest a few things about the wants and needs of the relocating aging population, namely that customization of the new residence was an extremely important feature to participants. Explicitly, the author noted three main themes surrounding transitioning residents’ desire to have their new homes customized: personalization, functionality, and displaying personal expertise on the topic of home customization.

In terms of personalization, the heart of this desire appeared to stem from interviewees’ expressed desire to have control and exert decision-making power over their environment. With respect to functionality, not all the interviewees stated they would actually make any modifications, but they wanted the option in case they might need to make changes in the future due to age-related ailments, etc. Finally, the theme of “expertise” was a common thread across interviews. As an example, one participant was described as taking great pride in showing the researcher the certificate that identified his father as a master carpenter.

Thus, it may be to the benefit of CCRCs to consider including at least a piece of the relocation process focused on affirming new residents’ desires to been seen as an expert in some fashion.  In a different, yet related vein, it’s also worth mentioning that some of the older adults interviewed saw themselves as anything but expert. They made self-effacing statements that conveyed being unworthy in an abstract sense, which translated to feeling undeserving of “customized” or “special” things. Case in point, some felt that granite countertops were “too fancy” for them. And an interview with one of the CCRC’s marketing directors included discussion of how his staff had to work with some older adults to make them feel they deserved to have “such a nice kitchen.”

In sum, these interviews reinforce the importance of keeping an open and honest dialog between senior living providers and current and future residents, and of considering the psychological and emotional concerns and beliefs that transitioning residents hold of themselves—both inflated and self-effacing—which may impact their decision-making with respect to modification of their new residence. So that when older adults close their eyes and imagine their future home, the picture in their mind feels more like their favorite room.


Perry TE. Make mine home: Spatial modification with physical and social implications in older adults, Journal of Gerontology (2015); 70: 453–461.

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