Place attachment and design features in senior cohousing in a rural community

Presented by: Melissa Lies, Dr. Mihyun Kang, Rachel Sample

As the population of older adults continues to grow, the issue of where and how older adults can continue to live in community becomes increasingly pressing. Relocation can be a difficult task for older adults, especially when having to downsize and lose connection with previous place attachment (Eshelman & Evans, 2002). Place attachment can be defined as a “bond or link” between residents, places or things, or the desire to remain close to an object (Hidalgo & Hernandez, 2001). Community design assisting the creation of place attachment can facilitate the transition of the older adults’ living environments. When older adults feel attached to a space, they typically use the space more, thus increasing the amount of socialization opportunities, while also allowing for greater wellbeing of the older adults (Zavotka & Teaford, 1997). The purpose of this study was to examine the design features that assist residents of a rural senior cohousing community with enhancement of place attachment. Purposive sampling of a Midwestern senior cohousing community established in 2012 was used for this study. Ten older adults aged from early 60s to late 80s, who had been living at the community for longer than six months, participated in this study. Data was collected by employing visual research methods, specifically photo-elicitation, which incorporates photos into individual research interviews to better understand the viewpoint of the research participant (Lorenz & Kolb, 2009). Participants were asked to take photos of various places that had meaning to them. These could be described as design features or items that they felt they would miss or that they could not live without. Participants photographed elements within their individual homes, outside their individual homes, areas within the common house, and areas around the senior cohousing community. Individual interviews lasting up to an hour were conducted to discuss the photos the participants had taken. Audio recordings were used to create the transcripts of the interviews. The interviews were then transcribed and organized by the computer software NVIVO. Content analysis was conducted, and three researchers collaborated to identify and reach a consensus on the emerging themes of the interviews. Constant comparative analysis, generative coding, and memorandums were employed. Emerged themes were categorized with the five dimensions of place attachment, place dependence, place identity, friend bonding, family bonding, and nature bonding as developed by Raymond, Brown and Weber (2010). The findings showed that place attachment can be observed throughout the senior cohousing community, including individual homes, the Common House, and surrounding areas of the community. Related to the five dimensions of place attachment, friend bonding and nature bonding were the most dominant dimensions while family bonding appeared the least. Friend bonding was promoted with the available places for all levels of spontaneous, proposed, and organized interaction with other residents. Design features such as Front Porch, Nodes and Sidewalks, Clustered Mailboxes and Parking evoke spontaneous conversation. The community is located in a rural environment, and nature bonding was enhanced by the connection and ability to interact with nature through design features such as Large Windows, Labyrinth, Common Garden and Wild and Raised Flowers around the community. Design features that allow for autonomous life and an easy transition from previous homes were related to place dependence, while design features that enable personalization and connection to personal past helped place identity. Family bonding was connected to community policies that allow for family activities rather than a connection to the physical environment. This study could be used as a foundation for further research into older adults’ place attachment to senior cohousing communities, as well as other environments for older adults.


  • Eshelman, P. E., & Evans, G. (2002). Home Again: Environmental Predictors of Place Attachment and Self-esteem for New Retirement Community Residents. Journal of Interior Design, 28(1), 3-9.
  • Hidalgo, M., & Hernandez, B. (2001). Place attachment: Conceptual and empirical questions [Electronic version]. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 21, 273-281. doi:10.1006/jevp.2001.0221
  • Lorenz, L. S., & Kolb, B. (2009). Involving the public through participatory visual research methods [Electronic version]. Health Expectations, 12, 262-274.
  • Raymond, C. M., Brown, G., & Weber, D. (2010). The measurement of place attachment: Personal, community, and environmental connections [Electronic version]. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 422-434. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.08.002
  • Zavotka, S.L. & Teaford, M.H. (1997). The Design of Shared Social Spaces in Assisted Living Residences for Older Adults. Journal of Interior Design, 23(2), 2-16.
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