Aging Populations Research Series, 6: Aging in place

Why do older adults want to ‘age in place’? And how can we facilitate it? This installment forms part of our research journey into the relationship between aging populations and cities.
by Koko Herder

In my first article of this research series, I introduced two central tenets in the field of aging studies: age-segregation and age-integration. In the articles that followed, we looked at age-segregated communities, such as The Villages of Florida in the USA. However, in Europe and North America policies and grassroots initiatives tend to move more and more away from the rhetoric of segregation. Instead, the idea of ‘aging in place’ is gaining attention. This article dives deeper into this notion of aging in place and looks at why place matters to older adults, and at the features of cities that help facilitate aging in place.


The relationship between people and their environment is well studied. For example, we know that the environment affects not only people’s mobility and activity levels, but also people’s health and well-being. On a more abstract level, the environment, too, is believed to be of essential importance for people to lead meaningful lives. Taking this idea as a starting point, gerontologists Graham Rowles & Miriam Bernard stress the importance of place in old age in their book ‘Environmental Gerontology: Making Meaningful Places in Old Age’ (2013). They explain that, throughout the life-course, people transform spaces into places – a space being a meaningless, bland, Cartesian space and a place being a space that is imbued with meaning through processes of habitation and habituation. The transformation of space into place happens on different scales: when we place our bag onto the seat next to us in the train and demarcate ‘our’ spot, when we decorate our home, and when we appropriate a city’s spaces. Place, as it is invested with meaning, in turn, reinforces our sense of self and identity, and as such it associates with our well-being. For example, we may feel comfortable and at home in the neighborhood that we live in, because we are familiar with it, we know people in the community, and we may have particular memories of events that took place in the neighborhood. Rowles & Bernard argue that the habitation of an environment over an extended period of time (as people age) generates temporal depth in the experience of place. And so, it strengthens emotional attachments and feelings of belonging. It thus can be said that, as people age, place becomes increasingly important to individuals.


So, place matters. Coupled with the fact that older people today wish to remain independent as long as possible, we increasingly value the idea of aging in place. But how can we facilitate comfortable aging within the home, the neighborhood and the community? Different frameworks exist for facilitating aging in place, or in other words, for cities to develop in an age-friendly manner. One such framework is the Global Age-Friendly Cities framework of the World Health Organization (WHO). It features both recommendations for the physical as well as the social environment. For example, it provides design guidance for supportive outdoor spaces and buildings, and suggestions towards social inclusion. Below, I discuss a number of these physical and social features as set out by the WHO, complemented with some additional examples.

Features of age-friendly cities as defined by the World Health Organization (Source: WHO)


First, in terms of the physical environment, it is sensible to make a distinction between the private and the public realm. To start with the private realm, some estimations state that older people spend up to 80% of their time at home. The home thus plays an essential role in the notion of aging in place. In order to be able to age in place, the home, logically, must be designed for people to age well. As such, the WHO emphasizes the availability of elevators, escalators and ramps in buildings. Simultaneously, the body of innovative design solutions facilitating aging in place, i.e. at home, is growing. So far, I have come across a wide spectrum of solutions, ranging from small-scale practices such as the lowering of doorknobs and light switches to the development of intergenerational living arrangements and adaptable housing for aging populations. On top of that, technology at the home can play a key role in furthering aging in place.

Modifying the home in order to age in place (Source: washingtonpost.com)

Regarding public space, the WHO urges that, for people to successfully age in place, outdoor spaces have to be of high quality, accessible and safe. It emphasizes the wide availability of green spaces to aged populations, and seating areas for resting. Walking is an important mode of mobility for older people, and therefore pavements must be especially safe and barrier free. On a practical level, this could mean that public spaces should be step free as much as possible and traffic lights at pedestrian crossings could, for instance, allow for longer crossing times. In addition, some studies state that public spaces have to be clearer and less confusing for elderly people. In that sense, numerous so-called ‘shared spaces’ that are being developed in cities around the world as of recently, including one right by Amsterdam’s Central Station, can be disastrous for older adults as well as the poor-sighted and disabled.


Lastly, with respect to the social environment in relation to aging in place, the WHO promotes community and social inclusion, intergenerational contact, and social participation. These are all quite generic recommendations, but are nonetheless important principles. The WHO framework also encourages policy makers and grassroots movements to involve the elderly in the development of projects addressing aged populations. Finally, there must be respect for elder populations on all fronts. The media can play a role in encouraging respect as well. For instance, the last edition of Vogue Portugal featured an item with older model Anna von Rueden. Such publications may change existing stigmas about older people and foster intergenerational respect.

Anna von Rueden in Vogue Portugal (Source: designscene.net)


Aging in place is certainly gaining ground. For older adults to be able to age in place, cities must develop in an age-friendly manner, meaning that the physical as well as the social environment need to be able to support aging populations. How can we make people across all fields of urban development aware of these age-friendly features so that cities will actually develop in an age-friendly way?

About the author

Koko Herder

Koko is about to graduate from the research master Urban Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Throughout his studies he has tried to combine planning and urban theory with urban design. Drawing inspiration from urban explorations across the world and being fascinated by everyday urban life, Koko encourages participatory and collaborative planning processes. At CITIES Foundation he now researches the relationship between aging populations and cities.


© 2022 CITIES.
All rights reserved.
Make a donation to CITIES