Dear members of AT HOME WITH GROWING OLD,
To be at all – to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place. Place is as requisite as the air we breathe, the ground on which we stand, the bodies we have. We are surrounded by places. We walk over and through them. We live in places, relate to others in them, die in them. Nothing we do is unplaced” (1997:ix)
– Edward Casey, “The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History”
I had a fantastic time at the AHWGO discussion on December 15, 2011. Thank you for indulging me in an intriguing conversation and exploration about the notion of place and the meaning of particular places, such as home, in our experiences growing (up) older over the course of our lives.
To recap, we began by reviewing a short film, “A Day in the Life,” which was created as a part of the One Away Campaign for Elder Economic Security and in collaboration with the Family Service Agency. This film highlighted what “home” meant for a diverse group of six older adults living in San Francisco. Given flipCams, these participants documented their rented, owned, or section 8 homes and how they adapted their homes and managed their lives in the face of daily changes – whether economic, physical, social, emotional, or psychological. It seemed unanimous that we found this short film to be captivating and a teaser for something more. We discussed the methodological strengths and limitations of what information gets privileged in terms of being edited-in versus edited-out in a short film such as this one. We brainstormed ideas about how this film could be expanded upon in the future such as including older adults represented in a wider range of settings that constitute “home,” such as board and care; we discussed additional themes that could be explored or edited-in to paint a more nuanced picture of the complexities these older adults faced; we interrogated current efforts of “aging-in-place” and how they could be integrated into the story-telling of the everyday experiences of older people, and we had a conversation about what particular purposes an expansion of this film could serve.
I, then, had the pleasure of presenting a qualitative research project I conducted to elicit the lived experiences of five self-identified lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer older adults in San Francisco using a photo elicitation technique. This project expanded the level of focus from the “home” to the city environment. Participants were asked to identify and represent their environments by recording them with disposable cameras. Their photographs served as catalysts for conversation and platforms for articulation about their varied and/or hidden social and spatial practices when negotiating and navigating the city. The thematic findings from this project demonstrated the way in which place and space were productive of particular outcomes for the participants as well as shaped by them in the way in which their aged-identities and queer-identities were embodied, emerged, and enacted. We discussed the way physical and emotional self-identity and meaning were represented in participants’ spaces and attached to the conceptions of their place in San Francisco over time. And, we dialoged about how participants continually worked to re-integrate with their place in the face of changes and uncertainty – within their bodies and in their environment as they have grown older – through creative and social actions that fostered meaning and identity.
I left our session invigorated by the rich conversation and curious with inquiry about how we could continue to think about not only improving “aging-in-place” efforts, which have commonly referred to making home modifications to enhance the possibility of growing old in one’s longtime home; but to also think critically about the role of place and its influences and consequences on our self-identities and our experiences of growing older over the course of our lives. I’ve summarized some of my reflections on place below.
The notion of place is an intriguing one to say the least. It is my belief that place can be understood as not only an object of inquiry – something people look at, study, research, or write about in order to define what exists (ontology). But, place is also a way of looking, seeing, and knowing the world (epistemology).
Place is a familiar word that denotes common experiences of the lived world that we often take for granted. Thinking about the way place is used in everyday speech, “there is no place like home,” is an utterance that is generally understood and has broad appeal to mean that one’s home is the preferred location where one finds familiarity, comfort, security, and refuge. In other examples, “she put me in my place” makes reference to a particular social position within a social hierarchy. “Come over to my place” suggests ownership or some connection between a person and a location and it conjures notions of spatial distance, such as here and there or near and far. And, “a place for everything and everything in its place” is a phrase suggesting that there is a particular ordering of things in the world according to some spatial basis.
Place can also be signified by a set of numbers, such as 37 degrees, 46 minutes N 122 degrees 26 minutes W. These numbers do not mean much to most people, however, once it is known that these re the longitude and latitude coordinates of San Francisco, Ca, immediately many images, emotions, or feelings come to mind based on what we know or have experienced about this city. Replacing these co-ordinates with a name helps us approach this particular locale as a place imbued rich with meanings and as a place we have a subjective sense of or knowledge about.
In a final example, built environments – which can be characterized by the walls of a room or the assemblages of buildings, land-use patterns, arteries of transportation and communication – are places of material things that produce landscapes, physical settings, or visible scenes for people to live in rooms, homes, neighborhoods, villages and cities. These places are not only consequential on the micro level in terms of personal interactions and meanings, but also on the macro level wherein market economies, gentrification, globalization, etc. have an effect on the way these places move, shift, change, and are experienced.
I would like to finish this entry by sharing an article I came across that tickled me – “The Psychology of Home: Why Where You live Means So Much” by Julie Beck in The Atlantic (December 30, 2011). While the article does not present a specifically gerontological lens, the author does raise some interesting themes and thoughts about home and place that build upon our discussion at the last AHWGO evening. I would love to know your thoughts. What would you add as gerontological critiques to this article? How do we garner these ideas to advance the way in which we understand and improve the lives of current cohorts of older adults as well as the aging populations?