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The concept Aging-in-Place (AiP) has been for several decades a useful term to describe living through the end of life in places which are familiar and meaningful. It has in some realms been focused primarily on the home environment, spawning numerous business initiatives  and certifications for professionals who consult with older adults about modifying their homes to match changing functional capacities. Many of the taglines in the aging-in-place industry highlight home modifications as the panacea for remaining safe and secure in familiar home environments, with the goal being to avoid being moved elsewhere. Davey et.al foregrounded this focus in 2004 when they defined AiP as “remaining living in the community, with some level of independence, rather than in residential care” (p.133)

And yet…if you are an older adult, if you work in aging services, or if you simply think about your own life no matter where along the spectrum of age you land, you know that while safety, security and an accessible home are important, there is more to unpack and more to embrace. Aging-in Place and the myriad things it represents are not simply a choice between living at home and living in an institution.

Several scholars and practitioners have pushed beyond home as the place where we age.  Blanchard, a proponent of aging-in-community, notes that expanding our thinking into the community realm means thinking about aging as a process of  “how, where and with whom we would like to grow old” (2013, p. 6). Environmental geographer and gerontologist Graham Rowles has provided numerous ways to expand our thinking around aging and place, among them the concepts of discovery and creation of meaning through place (2008). Rowles described being in place in the here and now as encompassing both where we have been and where we are going (2008, p. 129) and notes that our emotional attachment to physical space depends on the time and context in which it is experienced. Finally, Johansson and colleagues (2013) explore migration in later life to argue that place making may be a more useful construct than aging-in-place to understand the dynamic transaction between people and their environments. Place making extends over the life course and involves an accumulation of experiences and memories that influence how we inhabit place as we move through time.

We are in a different conversation than home versus institution, don’t you think?

And so how do we get to our title concept: Aging Emplaced?

As with many moments of inspiration, this one came about in a conversation with a graduate student – in this case a UNC-CH doctoral student in Occupational Science, Allison Calhoun, who is an astute observer of person-place interactions. Allison brought into this conversation about AiP and its nuances the notion of emplacement during a recent discussion that she led for our doctoral seminar. We don’t have here enough space to cover the various ways in which emplacement is being employed across varying disciplines about topics such as migration, social capital, and aging. But one core concept kept rising to the surface: emplacement as a process of coming to belong.

So, as  we close out the April 2021 blog series focused on Home, we are suggesting the concept of emplacement as a way to stimulate a more dynamic and expansive conversation about aging-in-place as belonging in the places we inhabit. Chapman (2009) articulates this when she uses an emplacement lens to consider what it means to age well, suggesting it as a process of making sense of self amid later-life changes in ways that are mutually compatible with place. Her suggestion struck me when I recently read it, because after the seminar that Allison led, I had scribbled on my notes: is aging-in-place a space where the past, present and future make sense?

To apply this idea to everyday life, for some it may be that an accessible bathroom remodel makes sense when the past experiences in that home are so meaningful that anticipated future changes warrant the present expense. For others, it may be that moving to be closer to friends with whom we feel most ourselves gives us an overriding sense of belonging that transcends the characteristics of physical space in later life. And for others, choosing residential care – or even having it chosen for us – may represent the best fit for our present selves so that the future holds greater potential for belonging than did the places we inhabited in the past. Each of them represents a process of aging emplaced; not all of them requires that we modify our environment in order to stay in place. Just some food for thought…

©2021:Womack JL. Professor: Occupational Science & Occupational Therapy. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

References:

Blanchard, J. (2013). Aging in Community: The Communitarian Alternative to Aging in Place, Alone. Generations, 37(4), 6-13. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/scholarly-journals/aging-community-communitarian-alternative-place/docview/1531931287/se-2?accountid=14244

Chapman, S.A. (2009), “Ageing well: emplaced over time”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 29; 1/2, pp. 27-37. DOI: 10.1108/01443330910934691

Davey, J., Nana, G., de Joux, V., Arcus, M. (2004). Accommodation options for older people in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Wellington, New Zealand NZ Institute for Research on Ageing/Business & Economic Research Ltd, for Centre for Housing Research Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Johansson, K., Rudman, D.L., Mondaca, M., Park, M.,Luborskey, M., Josephsson, S., & Asaba, E. (2013). Moving Beyond ‘Aging in Place’ to Understand MIgration and Aging: Place Making and the Centrality of Occupation. Journal of Occupational Science 20:2, 108-119. DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2012.735613

Rowles, G.D.  (2008) Place in occupational science: A life course perspective on the role of environmental context in the quest for meaning, Journal of Occupational Science, 15:3, 127-135, DOI: 10.1080/14427591.2008.9686622

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