Taking your memory-filled home with you when moving to sheltered housing?

Blog post
Jaana Leikas

Our national and municipal policies on the elderly underscore that the best place for an aged person is home. Still, unfortunately many elderly people find themselves in a situation, where the home intended for their final years suddenly turns into a ‘flat’ only, lacking the spirit emanating from the memories and meanings of one’s own home. When designing gerontechnology, the elderly should always be consulted directly. Would it be the time to set up an idea movement for the ageing population?

When different impairments force an elderly person to move to a barrier-free and sheltered – and in many cases quite small – flat, the decision on the ‘placement’ and even its furnishing is often made by someone else, and, in the worst case, a total stranger. In such a process, the elderly person easily feels lost, since isn’t it your own life history and the meanings and memories embedded in the objects at home that create the feeling of belonging to a specific place?

Hilkka has been living in the same neighbourhood all her life. Her birthplace is only one kilometre away, and she has already lived in this house for more than 40 years. These rooms and furniture carry the marks of her life. The chest of drawers and chairs tell stories about what has happened along her life’s journey. They represent the family and Hilkka’s inheritance and identity. Many generations have had the pleasure of using the sofa and armchair set, leaving their ornamented arm rests shiny from years of use. And that kitchen cabinet Hilkka varnished together with her husband. But now the time has come for Hilkka to move out from this home. Moving away is difficult. Being torn away from a bigger house into a smaller place, from familiar to unknown, from one’s own peace and quiet into a nursing home or sheltered housing and life under the eyes of others. Letting go of one’s own will and dear belongings, under the authority of others? On the other hand, living at home on one’s own is taxing. Not only physically, but also mentally, because loneliness is overpowering. The visits of the home care nurse for ‘securing maximum support’ – no matter if they take place three times a day – have not been enough to ease the need to chat with someone, have a coffee together and recount memories of one’s own life. Sharing things around one’s own coffee table would lift up one’s spirits.

Alli Wiherheimo, the first editor-in-chief of the Kotiliesi magazine, once said that home is not a place, but a strength. Home is the safe haven, where we have always returned from the stormy winds of the world. Many elderly people have had their home in the same address, adorned with the same furnishings and objects for decades. Carved in those carefully preserved and acquired ornaments and pieces of furniture rest the elderly person’s memory, life history, values and the sense of belonging: furniture passed on in the family, the crafts created by one’s spouse, and wedding and anniversary gifts. How could one ever decide what to take with you in this final move, and what to leave behind? How could one even fit one’s inner spirit into the small room of a nursing home and display it?

In his novel Fields of Glory (1990, translation into English by Ralph Manheim), Jean Rouaud writes about the situation, where his grandmother moved from a large house in the south of France to a small flat: ”The move from thirteen rooms to two meant parting not only with the accumulation of a lifetime but also with the bequests of earlier generations. More than asceticism, it was a sweeping away of memory. Still, it was grandmother’s recollection of this past that drove her to keep two or three heirlooms, in particular a cumbersome, poorly designed work table, when she could have kept the attractive mahogany bookcase with the oval glass panes in the same space and to better advantage. But this work table was her mother, her grandmother, herself and every industrious woman in the family – it was a stele.”

90% of designing well-being technology for the elderly should be contemplation of life

Technology can be used in a number of ways to support the domestic life of elderly people. It is already possible to produce innovative and responsible solutions for purposes such as thermal comfort and lighting, and monitoring changes in people’s physical and cognitive functioning capacity in a home environment. But could technology also enable bringing the memory-filled spirit of an old home to a new flat? Could artificial intelligence even sense a resident’s emotional state and create ‘cosiness’ during moody or anxious spells? And what would this include? Studies show that anxiety due to memory disorders can be alleviated through fragrances and music. Certain fragrances and types of music soothe patients and help them to sleep. The patient’s own, virtually created, home surroundings would probably have a similar effect. But what about a person with a healthy memory? Would virtual reality provide a natural return to the atmosphere and memories of their old home? Wandering in your own garden surrounded by birdsong, the humming of bees and the fragrance of roses would certainly be wonderful. Technology could at least enable new kinds of communication with friends and relatives. Together with artificial intelligence, virtual reality could provide people with a rich experience based on reliving their memories together with others – in that garden, for example – making even a new residence feel like home.

One factor related to the ‘spirit of home’ is the installing of safety technology in an elderly person’s home. The results of the TuTunKo project (The feeling of safety at home), implemented jointly by VTT and the University of Oulu, showed that, in the home environment, the feeling of safety can be strengthened in many different areas.  However, when installing different surveillance and monitoring devices, it should be kept in mind that the home should still remain a home without the elderly person’s flat turning into a ‘virtual hospital’ or ‘monitoring point’, where total strangers with different nursing backgrounds have ‘legalised entry’.

90% of designing well-being technology for the elderly should be contemplation of life. A home – whether sheltered housing or a house built with own hands – should enable elderly people to maintain not only their autonomy, life management and the sense of belonging, but also their beauty welfare. It should ensure that the aesthetic features of their homes are in harmony with their wishes regarding beauty. For many people, this feeling comes from the subjectively experienced beauty of the belongings in one’s own home and the spirit of home thus created. A lacy doily placed on the computer CPU in an elderly person’s home tells about her attempt to reduce the conflict between her own concept of beauty and the external appearance of the device. This may be of surprisingly big importance for how acceptable the person considers technology.

When designing gerontechnology, the elderly should always be consulted directly. Ten years ago, VTT implemented the idea movement of the ageing population, where VTT collaborated with 750 elderly people living in different parts of Finland to come up with different potential uses for mobile phones. In the project that empowered both researchers and the participants, active aged people produced over 4,500 useful, funny and even quite extraordinary ideas for using the mobile phone. The ideas were compiled into an open database, from where they have been used for different development projects.

In ten years, technology has taken major leaps forward, and there are new technologies available that could support good living and good quality of life. Would it be the time to set up an idea movement for the ageing population again, this time about the dream home?

Jaana Leikas
Jaana Leikas
Principal Scientist
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