Neighborhood Factors

A multidimensional conceptual framework of environmental factors affecting older adults’ health and activities was developed by Dr. Irene Yen, based on qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with ethnically diverse older adults.

Citation: Yen IH, Shim JK, Martinez AD, Barker JC. Older people and social connectedness: how place and activities keep people engaged. Journal of Aging Research, 2012. PMCID: PMC3261464

The overall findings indicated that although neighborhoods provided resources and opportunities for social engagement, because these older adults spent significant time outside of their residential neighborhood, one needs to look beyond the neighborhood to describe resources. The authors termed this as “activity spaces” and noted that it is important to explore how environmental factors associated with the activity spaces affect health, in addition to factors associated with residential environments. Seven key themes were identified and are described:

  • People express a wide range of expectations for neighborliness, from “we don’t bother each other” to “we have keys to each other’s houses;”
  • Perceptions of “social distance” between older people and “other” people (e.g. different ages or race/ethnicities) impede a sense of connection in neighborhoods; and
  •  Ethnic differences in living arrangements affect activities and activity locations, for example, living with extended family and taking care of grandchildren were more common for Latinos.
  • People try to stay busy;
  • People able to leave their homes do many activities outside their immediate residential neighborhoods; and
  • Access to a car is a necessity for most people.
  • It is unusual to plan for the future when mobility might be limited.

The authors describe how these themes fit with the key concepts of the Wahl-Oswald framework (Wahl and Oswald, 2010) that highlights person-environment fit, place attachment, agency, and belonging. This Wahl-Oswald framework on person-environment relationships in later life highlights autonomy, identity and well-being, proposing two parallel pathways: 1) experiences (e.g. familiar routines, relationships with neighbors) leading to belonging (e.g. place attachment); and 2) behavior (e.g. moving to change conditions as an adaptation to aging) leading to agency (e.g. altered person-environment fit). Belonging and agency both contribute to well-being. As people age, their level of agency to cope with environmental press may shift. If they are or become over time more physically frail, they may be more confined and vulnerable to negative characteristics (e.g. fewer stores, poor public transit, lack of friends.

For more information, contact Dr. Irene Yen at [email protected].

Wahl HW, Oswald F, in D. Dannefer and C. Phillipson, (eds) Environmental perspectives on ageing. The SAGE Handbook of Social Gerontology. London: Sage; 2010:111-124.