A place to belong: ageing at home. A reflection for the International Day of Older Persons.  

Whenever I am with a group of people who come from outside Scotland one of the commonest questions I get asked – as I am sure we all do – is “Where do you come from?” I have to confess it is a question I have often struggled to answer and have probably given contradictory and different replies over the years.

“Where do you come from?” might simply be a request for geographical birthplace origins but it is so much more.

For me the answer is I was born in Glasgow and lived there in my formative years, then returned again as an adult. But as I walked the streets of Partick, or learnt academic lessons at Gilmorehill, or experienced life’s lessons through the delights of the city’s west end, there were undoubtedly times when I felt ‘at home’ but I’m not sure I ever felt it was the place ‘where I was from.’ That for me is the place where you feel that you truly ‘belong.’

Belonging is an intriguing concept. It can be the space that you call home, the physical bricks and mortar that offers shelter, security and nurture. But it can often be the place that yearns deep within you. For me it has always been closer to the places I sense in my blood – most especially Skye where my parents came from, where I spent every holiday, I had up until my twenties, and where even today after months and months of absence makes me feel different when I arrive there. And lest you think I’ve swallowed a dose of romantic escapism – I don’t think belonging necessarily is always positive or comfortable it can also be a place that unsettles, contradicts and challenges- but it is through all that a place that pulls you into itself and which possesses a magnetic irresistibility. Memory of place can both heal and hurt.

The role of place and the nature of belonging in our character and personality has long been recognised to be of psychological significance. Where we are born and where we live matters on so many counts; where we feel we belong aids our wellbeing and this is perhaps especially true as we age and grow older.

Tomorrow is the annual United Nations International Day of Older Persons. It is a day when we are all encouraged to think about key issues for older age across the globe but most especially in our own communities and nations.

One leading organisation, the Centre for Ageing Better, has chosen this year to focus on the integral role of older people to their place, and the importance of place to ageing well. Like many age-friendly organisations their work is in part grounded in their knowledge and awareness that the place where we live has a huge impact on our wellbeing as we age. So this year they are focussing on the need to celebrate ageing in our community’s past, present and future.

As they state:

‘This year’s IDOP theme encourages people to get curious and be proud about your place; to come together across age-groups to discover your place’s past, to celebrate the diverse range of people and places making yours a great place to age, and to commit to make changes, so more people can enjoy good later lives in your community – now and in the future.’

The ageing-in-place agenda posits that the preferred environment for older adults to age is in the community, where they can remain active, engaged, socially connected, and independent.

So how are we doing? Are we helping people to stay in place? What are we doing to make our streets and communities really inclusive of older age? This is both about the physical and built environment but also about attitudes which include, value and recognise the contribution of older age citizens.

Yesterday I walked through the city centre of my old ‘home city’ Glasgow and by my personal assessment it is not a space that is truly inclusive. Pavements which appear to prioritise cyclists but confuse citizens as to where they should walk or be; on street shop display boards that challenge someone who uses a wheelchair or who has a visual impairment; graded and stepped areas which are an invitation to slips and falls; and pedestrian crossings requiring the speed of a Usain Bolt to get across in time. A frantic, busy commercialism that seems detached from the patience and pace required to support customers living with dementia or simply with the frailty of growing old. Now I don’t want to be banned from entering Glasgow – I could just as easily have mentioned Edinburgh, London or Newcastle. The cities I’ve been in recently simply do not strike me as having prioritised ageing in place.

I think we could and should do so much better. If we are going to take ageing in place seriously we have to recognise as a whole society that we have a long long way to go. And it makes both societal and economic sense not least as the relative disposable income and spending older citizens dwarfs any other age group. But put simply our city centres have excluded themselves through urban planning which has not been age aware or sensitive.

Our population is ageing and in a decade its composition will be very different from what it is today. We need civic leaders to take ageing seriously and not as an afterthought; to create urban communities that foster belonging and equality.

But we also need there to be a wider political recognition that ageing in place with all the benefits that brings to the citizen and to the wider health economy does not just happen by accident but it has to be adequately resourced. It’s not just the physical environment that discriminates against older age.

The stripping out of funding for community based third sector groups; the lack of sustainable support for homecare organisations which foster continued independence, and the hollowing out of support for respite and older persons day resources and services are making it an uphill battle for older people who want to continue to belong to their place to remain where they want.

As the Centre for Ageing Better make clear:

‘ simply changing the built form is not sufficient to create a more inclusive environment for ageing since places are more than physical spaces. Viable environments are articulated through a strong sense of place, defined as the social, psychological and emotional bonds that people have with their environment. A strong sense of place results from having access to supports for active participation, opportunities to build and sustain social networks, and assuming a meaningful role in the community. In contrast a feeling of displacement or ‘placelessness’ is associated with alienation, isolation and loneliness, often resulting in adverse health and well-being outcomes, particularly amongst vulnerable older adults.’

Being able to age where you want should be a fundamental right of citizenship in our communities or we are at risk of creating ghettos of demography.

We all of us need to be given the tools and resources which enable us to belong in the space we choose to be.

This place has grown old with me, its ground has held my feet, its grass has cradled my belonging, its hills have nurtured my hope; its rivers have soothed my dreaming; its streets echo with the laughter of memory, its doors open up to new conversation; it’s where I want to become young in my older age.

Donald Macaskill

Photo by George Hiles on Unsplash