Pieces of identity in older adults’: How the built environment should help us reflect who we are

December 08, 2023

By Jean Paul Ramirez Echavarría

Within environmental psychology and related fields of knowledge, the concept of home as an identity provider has been widely studied (Prentice et al., 2018). This is especially true for older adults who may have lived in their homes for long periods and formed strong attachments to their homes.

With the aging population, there is a growing need for spaces that provide both physical and emotional support and, in many cases, care from outside sources for older adults. As the idea of place and its implications for the welfare of people becomes a more extensive field of research (Ratliff, 2022), the need to understand spaces that contribute to the expression of older adults’ identity arises.

Through a community-based participatory approach, the Aging in the Right Place (AIRP) Project (Research, n.d. https://www.sfu.ca/airp/ research.html) evaluates “promising practices” in housing support for older people experiencing homelessness (OPEH). Ideally, these innovative solutions support aging in the “right” place by recognizing that “where an older person lives impacts their ability to age optimally and must match their unique lifestyles and vulnerabilities” (Research, n.d. https://www.sfu.ca/airp/research. html).

The AIRP Project is conducted in three urban centers in Canada: Montreal, Calgary, and Vancouver. This blog post focuses on one of the four Vancouver sites (promising practices) linked to the project: Whole Way House (WWH). WWH is a non-profit organization that offers community-building programs and tenant support services by partnering with different housing providers (Whole Way House, 2023. https://wholewayhouse.ca/).

Identity and Emotional Place Attachment

The notion of an empowering place that authentically reflects who we are is closely linked to the concept of emotional place attachment (Zahra, 2022): a positive bond between the person and the places they inhabit, particularly their home, neighborhood, city and country of residence. In the AIRP Project’s theoretical framework (Canham et al. 2022), different indicators that contribute to aging in the “right” place are shown in half circle diagrammatic format. One part of this framework displays four concepts that contribute towards emotional place attachment and place-identity. These four concepts are: satisfaction, safety and privacy, choice and autonomy, and sense of control.

Figure 1

Aging in the Right Place Theoretical Framework

In the AIRP Project, study participants worked as co-researchers, collecting data through photovoice to discuss their experiences of aging and well-being. They took pictures of places and events in their home or built environment that reflect their idea of aging in the right place. Photovoice is a participatory research method defined by Wang et al. (2000) as “a process by which people can identify, represent, and enhance their community through a specific photographic technique” (p.82).

In this blog post, I use a sample of quotes from photovoice interviews with study participants in WWH to showcase how participants describe their sense of identity and belonging as it relates to their home environments and surrounding areas using the AIRP conceptual framework as a guide. In the following section, I share select quotes for the four concepts linked to place attachment: satisfaction, safety and privacy, choice and autonomy, and sense of control, to highlight how these can be related to aging in the right place for OPEH.


AIRP study participants who expressed that their home or built environment reflected their identities, expressed a feeling of being ‘at home’ within the housing they were living in. Four main components within the environment contributed to their feelings of sense of ‘being home.’:

a) Accessibility of the place: This included having different resources and services within easy reach, such as markets, health centers, community centers, parks, and trails. According to a 61-year-old male resident: “I told my friend the first reason why I chose to stay here, to begin with, was the fact that: I just have to walk around the corner and I’m right where I need to be.”

b) Affordability and stability: This means having a secure living environment in an increasingly insecure housing landscape. This allows for a personal and intimate space that they could call their own. The abovementioned participant said: “renting is fantastic, it’s only costing me [amount of money] a month. I cannot get anything better than that in my wildest dreams”.

c) The aesthetics of the place and the surroundings: This means living in a visually appealing place where spaces are clean and comfortable and where people enjoy spending time. A 77-year-old man said: “So, when it blooms [the trees], I mean, it sorts of lights of the place”.

Figure 2

Flowering Trees

Note: V3-C12.2. Photo 4

d) The flexibility and the option to personalize their homes: This means having the freedom to decorate their own space and make it a distinctive expression of their personal taste and style. For example, one of the participants talked about her car, which she nicknamed “Star Wars” because she decorated it with lights that shine at night, and expressed how the personalization of this and the sense of belonging she feels towards the car gave her a great sense of freedom. While explaining her car’s name, she said: “Star Wars is he, because it had to be a huge taking care of me. And Star Wars is called that because at nighttime, all the lights come on everywhere in the car, especially in the front.” (63-year-old woman).

Choice and Autonomy

Many participants valued choice and autonomy and discussed that these factors are the ones that most contributed to their age in the right place experiences. These components helped them be responsible for the choices they made about housing, services, and activities, and this grounds a sense of who they are. One of the participants (62-year-old woman) mentioned that she felt at home in this housing; she realized that she was not in a nursing home-type institutional setting and that she was able to wander freely and do as she pleased while living in her current housing and receive supports and assistance, as needed. The idea of choice and autonomy was mentioned over and over by participants when they articulated how important it was to them to have their right to handle life at their own pace: “I try to be as independent as I can” (72-yearold woman). Privacy and personal spaces were respected and valued within the housing they were living in. Some of them found a direct relation between safety and security of the environment and the feeling of social integration: “I feel safe going anywhere. And I love the building. I trust pretty much everybody in the building.” (63-year-old woman).

Figure 3

Participant´s common space: having everything you need to function.

Note: V3-C11.2. Photo 2.

Feeling safe and supported in their housing and being able to make their own choices and build autonomy enhances their sense of well-being, one of them (61-year-old man) stated: “I am doing so with better and better clarity, much more decisive decision-making, happier with the outcome.”

Safety and Privacy

Participants felt attached to the place of living because they could thrive without worrying about external factors such as unsafe conditions, security threats, or extreme weather conditions.

Figure 4

Building´s Lobby: Security

Note: V3-C7.2. Photo 2.

Some of the participants were able to engage in meaningful relationships with their neighbors in the building and even with the staff, and these relationships meant changes for participants in their way of expressing themselves, seeing the world, and evaluating their place of residence, the abovementioned participant adds: “Yeah, it’s enabled me to come out of the shell that I was in for a little while. And just be- feel- I’m not alone.” Other participants mentioned taking on more active roles within their community and housing and acting as caretakers for other neighbors that have a higher level of need or have some type of disability. One participant, a 61-year-old-man, shared: “And I’ve gone out of my way, in a sort of a way, to knock on the doors and make sure that they get everything they need and join us.”

Sense of Control

Some participants highlighted the significance of aging in a place where they felt comfortable and at home, and how this allows them to have control over their daily lives and make their own choices about food, housing and activities: “Yeah, I do what I want, when I want, and how I want” (73-year-old-woman).

Figure 5

Market: being free to decide.

Note: V3-C1.2. Photo 4

These different components contributed to a sense of control for the participants. Additionally, being in an affordable and stable place allowed them to be somewhat financially free, as well as living in a safe neighborhood with access to different services and transportation, about this, one of the participants (63-yearold-woman) said: “I feel safe going anywhere. Especially with- I have a car. And I love the building.”

Different objective and subjective factors within the built environment are closely linked to emotional place-attachment and build place-identity in older adults. According to the experiences captured through the different interviews in the AIRP Project, these factors can be summarized as: participants’ satisfaction with their living place, including accessibility, affordability, stability, aesthetics, and opportunities for personalization; autonomy and choice to do as they please; a sense of safety and privacy that allows for greater social integration within the housing and the community; and, finally, a sense of control. Place attachment and place-identity are good predictors of the social well-being of older adults (Pouya et al., 2017), thus there is a need for more research on place attachment and identity as it links to housing for older adults, especially housing precarious older adults to help with the development of new promising practices that are affordable and stable and allow older adults of all ability, socio-economic backgrounds to age in the right place.


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This article was made possible by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Re - search Council (SSHRC) jointly funded Part - nership Grant. The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of CMHC or SSHRC. The AIRP Project is part of Canada’s National Housing Strategy to support sector innovation and new housing solutions.