Exploring Inner Space: Assisted Living Residents’ Perceptions of Shrinking Space

The transition to assisted living is accompanied by many changes for residents. One study investigated residents’ positive and negative perceptions of shrinking space as they make this transition.

In an analysis of interviews with 15 residents of four assisted living communities, researchers examined residents’ perceptions of space at this stage of their lives. Participants were 85 or better and had been diagnosed with a life-limiting illness. Interviews covered a variety of topics, such as the transition to assisted living, social networks, and care needs. For this study, only themes related to perceptions of space were analyzed.

One theme many residents mentioned was related to shrinking space as one nears the end of life. This has to do with reduced mobility, being visited instead of visiting others, and overall less contact with the world outside. Some residents reported negative experiences with shrinking space, such as confinement (feeling trapped or cut off from the world) or vulnerability (invasion of personal space or loss of possessions). These residents also tended to not feel at home in the assisted living community. Other residents who did feel at home in the community tended to report positive experiences associated with shrinking space, such as a sense of safety (being watched over or the ability to summon help), as well as an enhanced sense of intimacy with others or with nature.

Based on these themes, the researchers offered recommendations for how senior living communities can help residents feel more at home. One recommendation was to encourage families to move residents’ meaningful possessions with them to assisted living. This would help residents make small but meaningful journeys throughout the day that connect them with their past and identity. Additionally, finding ways to connect residents to the outside world can have a significant impact. New technologies may help with this, but even keeping residents up-to-date on news and weather can be helpful. Although residents may perceive their physical space as shrinking, they may be able to expand their mental space through spiritual practices, engaging with characters or places in books, or connecting with nature.


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Vandenberg AE, Ball MM, Kemp CL, Doyle PJ, Fritz M, Halpin S, Hundley L, & Perkins MM. Contours of “here”: Phenomenology of space for assisted living residents approaching end of life. Journal of Aging Studies (2018); 47: 72-83.


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