Work Package 2: Understanding the Homes of Older People

Exploring how older people use their space & what their homes mean to them.

The research in Work Package 2 focused on learning about older peoples experiences of living in their homes as they age. The goal was to gather insights from as many older people as possible to create a clear picture of what people wanted, needed, and worried about in regards to adapting their home.  

Creative Home Mapping (led by Dr Melanie Lovatt)

If I, a social scientist, asked you to take part in a piece of research for a project I was running, its likely you would have some ideas about what I might be asking you to do. You might assume I was going to ask to interview you, for example, or invite you along to a focus group, or hand you a survey or questionnaire about a particular topic and while these are all methods we use as social scientists, they’re not the only tools we have under our belt.

When we talk about creative methods in social science, we’re usually talking about a range of activities that break away from the traditional question-and-answer format of older research methods. There are a lot of reasons to do this, including giving the person taking part more control, and getting a more in-depth insight into each person’s experience when they talk about their life.

Importantly, creative methods often help us capture the experiences of people who find it difficult to sit and take part in a traditional interview for an hour- such as people living with dementia, people with cognitive impairment, or people who find it difficult to get their thoughts across using words alone.
Creative methods is an umbrella term that can include a wide variety of different activities including using art, music, performance, or technology to create something that helps to explain or explore a particular subject in a way that would not have been possible using speech alone.

DesHCA used a creative mapping method to explore how older people thought about, felt about, and used their homes. This gave people an opportunity to take part in this activity in a way that worked for them and helped capture how they saw and felt about their home.

Asking someone to make a creative map meant giving them free rein to create something meaningful to them. This might have meant sitting down and drawing a top-down map of their home that included where each room was and how it was laid out, or it might have meant taking pictures to create a collage or filming a video as they moved from room to room.

DesHCA recruited 54 participants for this activity, conducting interviews with 16 men and 38 women aged between 51 and 91 over the course of 2022. Of these participants 30 lived in multi-level houses, 14 in flats, 11 in bungalows or single-level houses, and 1 in a caravan, allowing the team to get gather perspectives from people with a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

During the interview participants were asked  about their home, and their experiences of making changes their home as they got older. Most participants made their creative map during the interview, allowing researchers to ask questions about specific areas and items that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

This approach allowed the creative mapping interviews to capture a lot of data on the physical aspects of people’s homes, including what they liked and disliked about their home, what worked well for them, and what they would like to change in the future if they could. They also delved further, looking beyond the building itself to learn about how participants liked to use the different areas in their home, what kind of activities they liked to do there, and how their home had changed over time. 

Participants were then contacted again after 6 months to explore whether there had been any major changes to their situation, health, or home during that time.

Data from the interviews were analysed using reflexive thematic analysis, which allowed the research team to identify and explore important themes, commonalities, and differences as they emerged from the data. 

The team identified three main themes within the data: adaptations, the embodied experience of ageing and relationships.


One of the key findings from the adaptations theme included the distinction between “Big A” and “little a” adaptations – that is, between the noticeable, intrusive, often medical adaptations people were often told they should have, and the subtle tweaks and improvements they made to their home because they wished to, because a family member suggested it, or because they saw a friend benefit from it. This difference in language meant participants often claimed they’d made no adaptations to their house while simultaneously sitting in a home that they had continued to upgrade to meet their needs in the same way they always had. This split between ‘real’, ‘proper’ or ‘Big A’ adaptations, and the day-to-day upgrades and improvements people made was striking- and raises important questions about how we raise awareness about the different ways people can create a more age-inclusive home for themselves while challenging the idea that all adaptations are made of ugly white PVC. 

Embodied Experience of Ageing

Every person experiences ageing differently- and this was very clear within our dataset. Participants varied drastically from one another, from those who enjoyed the wild outdoors, to those who spent their time creating art, to those who dedicated their time to caring for their grandchildren. Yet these activities often went beyond things our participants did to keep busy- they were part of who they were: they were outdoorsy, they were artists, they were grandparents, and they all explained how important it was for them to have homes that reflected that. For these participants, a ‘perfect age-inclusive home’ didn’t just look like an accessible home that met their physical needs, but a vibrant space that helped them fulfil these roles and access these parts of themselves. This raises important points as we consider issues around age-inclusive design and designing for ageing, where suggestions to downsize to the smallest possible home or move to a new location may clash with activities and roles that are important to them.


People’s experiences of growing older and adapting their homes to suit there needs were often strongly influenced by those around them. Friends, family members, neighbours and the wider community all played a role in shaping the different ways in which our participants thought about themselves, their experience of ageing, and how well their home could meet their needs. There were many examples of participants changing or adapting their home in response to the needs of others- such as changing the bathroom to a wet room in response to a spouse having issues stepping in and out of the bath, or the need to keep a certain amount of space in the kitchen. Yet there were also plenty of participants who talked about the role of others in shaping and adapting their home, from children installing astroturf to friends and family expressing strong opinions about things in the home they loved and hated. Indeed, many adaptations and changes made to the homes of our participants were made with, for, or in spite of those around them- highlighting the importance of looking at issues of age-friendly design from a range of perspectives, as each ‘player in the game’ has their own stake and their own opinion.

The team is currently preparing an academic paper- we will link it here when it is published.

Dementia Friendly Home Audit (led by Dr Cate Pemble)

Current estimates suggest that approximately 85% of older adults living in the UK would rather stay in their own homes than move into supported living or residential care, even if they had a serious diagnosis like dementia, yet only 10% of houses within the UK have been adapted to support people living with long term health conditions or changing needs.

The dementia friendly home audit is a little brother to the Dementia Services Development Centre’s Environments for Ageing and Dementia Design Assessment Tool which was released in 2023. DesHCA’s home audit drew many of it’s questions from EADDAT, and from the expert knowledge of our DSDC colleagues, to create an online audit that people could fill in at home to give us an idea about how age-inclusive or dementia friendly their home might be.

Over 400 people from across the UK volunteered took part in the Home Audit exercise, many of whom volunteered through Join Dementia Research. In the end, 33% of participants reported having some difficulty with their mobility, 20% had trouble with their senses, and 25% experienced challenges with their memory, thinking, or cognition, with 10% reporting an issue in all three areas. This gave the DesHCA team a fantastic opportunity to learn about a range of houses in the UK, from participants with a variety of backgrounds, needs, and abilities.

Participants were able to take part online using their computer or smartphone, or by phone. The audit asked questions about key areas in and around the home including how easy it was to recognise their front door and distinguish it from their neighbours, how easy it was to read settings on appliances, and how they used colour, contrast, and pattern throughout their home. 

The data from the survey was examined by the quantitative team, allowing DesHCA to highlight key areas where homes in the UK might be improved or adapted at relatively low cost.

This analysis is in it’s final stages- you will find a summary of our findings here soon.

Environment and Activity Monitoring using Passive Sensors (led by Dr Martin Quirke)

While most of the work in work package 2 focused on understanding how people used, experienced, and decorated their homes, that was only one side of the story.  Both the creative mapping and home audit activities involved talking to people about their houses- but what if we could ‘talk’ to the house itself? What would peoples home’s say if we could interview them?

Environment and activity monitoring was a way to understand how the building itself functioned, and how people moved around it over a longer period of time. The DesHCA team installed Kontaktio Portal Beam sensors in 13 houses in Scotland to explore how environmental factors in the house might respond to the way someone used or moved around their home. 

Environmental monitoring allowed us to look at home design from another perspective and capture factors most people didn’t think about, such as how the temperature, light levels, or air quality in the rooms in their home changed over the course of days, weeks, or months.

Activity monitoring allowed us to capture data about how often different rooms were used and for how long. These types of sensors used thermal imaging technology to detect if a person or multiple people were in the room or not, but they did not capture images or any information about what someone was doing. This meant that every time the sensor collected data, it took note of factors like light level, temperature, and air quality, along with a yes or no indicator of whether someone was in the room at that time, which could then by analysed by the team to explore the different factors at play within the home.

The 13 households who volunteered to take part in this activity were visited by the research team twice, once to install the devices, and once to remove them. The goal at this stage of the research was to gather extensive data from various houses throughout the year to build a picture of  how people’s homes ‘worked’ at different times of the day and during different seasons.

 Tracking these factors would allow the quantitative team to identify potential patterns and interactions between factors such as heat, air quality, how often someone was in the room and for how long, and the weather outside.

The data from this activity is in the final stages of analysis. We expect the results to contribute vital insights to ongoing discussions on designing supportive homes in the future and retrofitting existing homes to better support older individuals in their day-to-day lives as they age.

This section will be updated with a summary of results and a link to associated papers as these become available.