A home for life? Understanding liminal space as a place to “just be” in later life

Helen Brown headshot
Helen Brown
Doctoral Researcher, University of Sheffield

Appropriate, good quality housing is essential to health and wellbeing across the life course. However, there is limited research about the housing aspirations of older homeowners living in low and middle market neighbourhoods. This risks stereotypes and assumptions being made about what people want from home as they age. Therefore, the overall aim of this PhD research is to better understand housing aspirations in later life. 

This piece reflects on one of the emerging themes from the study, namely the importance of liminal spaces of the home.  For the purpose of this blog, liminal space represents the area between the physical home and community which extends beyond. Therefore, these liminal spaces vary considerably in form between participants but are connected by a number of evolving findings from the data. The importance of liminal spaces of the home is an unanticipated finding from the research study, three key themes are considered here.

Firstly, liminal spaces create both a valued connection to, and welcome distance from, wider neighbourhood. For example, a framed vista of the neighbourhood across this space is highly valued, providing a visual perspective to enjoy and maintains connection to the community. At the same time, liminal space creates a “safe zone”, offering a physical barrier to the outside world across which any potential intruder must cross before reaching the home. 

Secondly, liminal spaces are a largely fixed context but are subject to temporality as people age and their needs change.  They create an embodied space in which to express choice, identity, and creativity throughout this evolving relationship.  However, may become a challenge to maintain physically, financially, and emotionally. Therefore, it appears that creating a balance between the opportunities liminal spaces extend and managing the potential challenges arising over time needs to be considered. 

Thirdly, liminal space provides a connection to the external environment or outside world. For example, offering order and control in terms of a managed garden, but also creates an opportunity to attract wildlife, both are highly valued by participants. The connection to nature within these liminal spaces may therefore be even more important post Covid-19 where opportunities to travel outside the home remain constrained. Overall, liminal spaces of the home appear to be hugely important to subjective wellbeing in later life because they represent a sanctuary; a space to ‘just be’. 

This finding may be important to policymakers, practitioners and developers involved in delivery of housing for older people. This is because the values attributed to liminal spaces of the home is in stark contrast to the perceptions of older peoples’ housing the participants expressed in the study. So, when considering future housing options, especially sheltered housing, extra care housing and care homes, which were categorised together by the older people themselves, the comments were around losing their freedom, being locked up and even death. Perhaps greater emphasis on liminal spaces as a sanctuary may help to change these negative perceptions by providing an aspirational private or public space to ‘just be’ within housing settings.

If you found this blog of interest, you can also read a range of other resources on designing homes for later life on the Housing LIN’s dedicated ‘Design Hub’.

Lastly, if you would like to find out more about how the Housing LIN can provide you with bespoke support, please email us at: info@housinglin.org.uk


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