Philip Moeller

Having a safe place centers us and makes it easier to achieve life goals

The human animal is not so different from his ancestors. Just as animals have lairs and mark their territories, people have fundamental attachments to place and space. Even equating home and womb is not too far a stretch. Humans, however, add layers of significance to home and place. Physical places endure while memories and people fade, so homes and neighborhoods become "memory machines" that help us keep alive some of the strongest sources of what has given our lives meaning, well-being, and happiness.

It's no wonder, anthropologists and aging experts say, that we often say people are going home to God when they die. And it's no wonder that we bring our fallen military heroes home to rest and that we drive all night to get home instead of stopping at a roadside motel (which, of course, promises us all the comforts of home). For many children, a sense of home and place is shaped by their room, and it can evoke strong memories and feelings decades after they've moved away.

"There is pretty strong evidence that the environment in which people live is closely linked to their well-being," says Graham Rowles, a gerontology professor at the University of Kentucky. "It's sort of like the human animal attachment to territory is built into our DNA."

"We have a need for a place that is called home," he adds. Home provides security, control, belonging, identity, and privacy, among other things. "But most of all, it's a place that provides us with a centering -- a place from which we leave each morning and to which we return each evening."

American culture is strongly rooted in feelings of independence, autonomy, and control, says Robert Rubinstein, who teaches anthropology at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. "We live in a society that is concerned with freedom, and part of that development is being able to make a space for yourself, and having a central place from which to look out at the world," he says.

Rick Scheidt has spent much of his professional life talking with aging residents of the vanishing small towns that dot the prairies in Kansas and other Midwestern states. Here, sense of place is very powerful. Often, it is all that is left.

"We call it autobiographical insidedness," he says. "People look at aspects of their environment in a very personal way. I might be talking to an older women about her memories of a place, and I'd say, 'Look at that cedar tree over there. It looks like it's been through hard times and gotten hit by lightning.' And she'll look at that tree and say, 'Oh, that's third base,' drawing on memories of when she played baseball there as a child."

Such memories become part of a person's life story, which often is central to their sense of well-being and assessment of whether their life has had meaning. "We can't understand anything else that people are telling us without understanding their life story," Rubinstein says. The role of home and sense of place in a person's life story can be significant. As people age, he notes, their life story takes on added importance. "It moves from being just a story to becoming an actual resource that people rely on to remember their place in the world and their accomplishments."

Likewise, the meaning of a person's home is enriched with memories. Habib Chaudhury teaches classes on aging and environment at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. He identifies four areas where home takes on added meaning for older residents. "The first is the emotional attachment that is formed," he says, and it grows over time. "It contributes to their emotional well-being, their self-esteem, and their confidence about doing things."

Next is familiarity with their physical surroundings. This is particularly important if a person has lost some physical and cognitive abilities. Knowing their way around their home helps compensate, and being comfortable in their living space reduces stress and helps well-being.

"The third factor is knowing their neighborhood and being comfortable there and with the people they know," Chaudhury says. Losing that comfort can contribute to alienation and isolation, which have strong adverse health affects on older people.

"Fourth is more conceptual," he says. "It has to do with their sense of identity. The sense of attachment to a home can become so strong that it becomes part of their emotional identity," Chaudhury says. "It can help people compensate for other losses in their lives," such as the death of a spouse, end of a career, or contraction of their circle of friends. "Home becomes an emotional refuge -- a place where they still have control."

Making the transition from a long-occupied family home to newer surroundings can have a big impact on people at all stages of life, but may be especially traumatic for older people. "This can be very difficult for older people who have lived in a place for 40 or 50 years," Rubinstein says. "There is a need for many people for counseling for how to go through this process" of downsizing.

While today's older generations have powerful attachments to home and place, Rowles sees signs that America's relentless pursuit of mobility has been changing the attitudes of younger generations. The recession and serious slowdown in home sales has, for the time being, reduced the pace of home relocations. But the broader pattern has been of a society in which people can live anywhere and unconsciously depend on businesses and other institutions to replicate a comforting sense of place all over the country.

"We're much more mobile" than past generations, Rowles says. "There is less and less attachment to place. What are we losing as we are constantly moving around? Families are separated. There is no longer a support system in place. Some of the things about home are much more symbolic than real these days."

Meanwhile, Rowles notes, "when you turn off the freeway at any intersection, you know what you're going to expect, because society has reinforced that sense of familiarity. As a society, we've become very adept at doing that. Perhaps we are substituting the home of generations ago with a new set of compensating mechanisms."

Mobile or not, the meaning of home and place has been powerfully reinforced during the nation's mortgage crisis. As millions of people have lost their homes and others are struggling to keep them, it's clear that losses go much deeper than brick and mortar, Rubinstein argues. What's lost is people's sense of value as human beings, and the confidence that having a home provided.

Further, the people and institutions who put people in homes and loans they couldn't afford were unfairly exploiting a deep human desire, especially among Americans, to have a home of their own. "People feel like they have been mysteriously cheated out of their dream," he says.

Dreams are essential, of course, but people should be leery of investing too much of themselves in their home. At the extreme, this problem shows up in headlines about people who never throw anything away and become recluses in their homes. A healthy home-life balance can be supported by annual "cullings" of possessions and domestic items. Older homeowners should encourage grown family members to take items, especially those with sentimental value. And when it comes time to move, there is no shame in hiring a downsizing consultant to help with what can be very difficult and emotional decisions.

It's also wise to identify how important a sense of home and place is to you, and to maintain the level of domesticity that supports your well-being. For some, traveling with a favorite pillow and even bedside knick-knacks may help reduce stress and promote a good night's sleep on the road. Other people, by contrast, could care less about where their head lands at the end of the day. Whatever your preferences, the goal is to be at peace with your surroundings.


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