Environment and identity in later life: a cross-setting study

Project lead: Dr Sheila Peace

Research team

  • Dr Sheila Peace

  • Ms Caroline Holland

  • Ms Leonie Kellaher


October 1999 - December 2002


Dr Sheila Peace
School of Health and Social Welfare
The Open University
Walton Hall
Milton Keynes MK7 6AA

Tel: +44 1908 654240
Email: S.M.Peace@open.ac.uk


Most older people live in intergenerational communities with a wide range of experience of inclusion or segregation, attachment or disaffection. The physical conditions and emotional significance of people's accommodation impact upon their quality of life and their ability to maintain a sense of identity throughout life. Yet much of what we know about older people's views on environment has been developed through studies of those living in accommodation-with-care where the focus has been on aspects of institutional life.

This research takes a broader look at the issue of environment and identity by engaging with older people living in a wide range of settings. It will evaluate commonly used measures of well-being, comparing them with each other and with what older people themselves say about their living arrangements. The study is grounded in theoretical and empirical antecedents which place the experience of older people themselves at the centre of research and it therefore builds engagement with older people into the research objectives and the research methods.

Aims and objectives

The project aims to advance understandings of the connections between living environment and the maintenance of identity in later life, and to provide usable material for the evaluation of circumstances.

The objectives are:

  • To review, within a range of settings, existing measures of quality of life as these relate to the environment.

  • To compare elements of existing measures with the experiential categories which older people themselves indicate as linking environment with identity maintenance and well-being.

  • To focus on the key themes generated by this comparison to include aspects of privacy, security, attachment to place, social inclusion, design features, and the impact of transitions.

Study design


This study is intended to permit comparison between different types of environments rather than to reflect the actual distribution of older people within domestic and institutional settings. Both types are included to diversify the range of domesticity, design and organisation of space, levels of care provision, and size (the number of residential units on site or grouped together). They include not-for-profit and for-profit developments. The study is located in three sites: a London Borough, a Midlands town, and a semi-rural location.


Older people will take part both as individuals and in groups.

  • Focus groups of people from several of the setting types will meet periodically throughout the research. They will consider aspects of the quality of life in settings with which they are familiar and discuss on-going research topics.

  • In individual studies of environment and well-being, respondents will be drawn from across the settings to take part in-depth fieldwork eliciting individual respondents' views on their own living environment and sense of well-being. Quality of life measures will be used and respondents will also be asked to comment on the measures. Further data from individual studies will include biographical contexts and details of the environment, along with detailed observational notes and photographs.

  • A small number (c.10) of respondents will contribute video footage of their reflections on aspects of life in specific locations.

Policy implications

There will be at least two essential outputs of the research:

  • An enhanced understanding of the relationship between living environments, the maintenance of identity, and well-being in later life.

  • An improved and validated system of measuring quality of life in different residential settings.

These outputs will be of use to older people and their families, to care managers, hospital social workers and those involved in continuing care, sheltered housing managers, registration and inspection officers, members of primary care groups and professionals involved in the housing market. They will also be of interest to policy makers and advisors and members of the academic community.