The contradictions of ‘house’ and ‘home’: The challenge of older homelessness

by Amanda Grenier
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Written by: Amanda Grenier, Rachel Barken, and Colleen McGrath
May 19th, 2017

Aging occurs in close relation to ‘house’ and ‘home.’ International policies and frameworks on aging are organized around ‘home,’ ‘community,’ and ‘aging in place’ as ideals for late life. Older people similarly express a preference to remain in their homes when faced with disability, functional decline, and shrinking social connections, and services delivered in older people’s domiciles further solidify the importance of ‘house’ and ‘home.’ Yet, although authors have drawn attention to the complexities of ‘home,’ (e.g., Rowles & Chaudhury, 2005), few have focused on how experiences such as homelessness may alter access to and meaning of ‘home’ in later life. This oversight is problematic given that homelessness among older people is an increasingly widespread international phenomenon (Culhane, Metraux, Byrne, Stino, & Bainbridge, 2013; Grenier et al., 2016)).

This blog summarizes key points of our recent article ‘Homelessness and aging: The contradictory ordering of ‘house’ and ‘home’” (Grenier, Barken, & McGrath, 2016), based on issues discovered in a larger SSHRC funded project on homelessness in later life. Homelessness presents an immediate contradiction where discourses and practices that operate in relation to ‘home’ for older people are concerned. Existing programs and services are typically organized to target either older people (e.g., home care) or homeless people (e.g., shelters and housing). Yet, older people who are homeless do not have the ‘ideal home’ within which to grow old, nor do they have the physical housing—or place—within which to be deemed eligible for and receive care. Yet, Where policy frameworks on aging tend to uphold ‘home’ as the ideal place to ‘grow old,’ practices such as home care take for granted that there is a physical site (‘house’) for care. As such, the responses to aging— particularly as organized around ‘care’—may overlook the needs of older people who are homeless.

In our article, we draw attention to the challenge of age-based eligibility in services and how homelessness represents aging in ‘undesirable places’. First, we highlight how age-based eligibility results in challenges of accessing services and supports. Age, combined with discourses and practices that are configured around ‘house’ and ‘home’ intersect in ways that often constrain access to the practical provision of services. Notably, chronological age is often used to set the boundaries for programs and services such as youth or seniors housing, public pension (e.g., Old Age Security), or in the United States, Medicare. Consider cases where a homeless person nearing late life is ‘too young’ to qualify for seniors’ services despite co-morbidities that are more in line with older groups, and/or where particular income or health supports only become available at age 65 (e.g., Medicare, pensions, etc.). Among the most significant challenges are the gaps that exist between hospital, emergency shelter or housing programs, and home or long-term care, where older people who are homeless can fall between the cracks of services.

Second, we discuss the frames used to interpret homelessness in late life. Where issues are often considered in terms of access, homelessness among older people illustrates the contrasts that exist between ‘aging well’ and experiences of older people with histories and experiences of homelessness. That is, homelessness among older people draws attention to how older people who are homeless are aging in places that are largely considered undesirable. With affordable housing, home care, and institutional care generally unavailable or difficult to access, older homeless people with health and support needs and/or reduced social and familial networks age ‘on the streets’, in shelters, and hospitals—locations that fall short of the ideals of home, place, and community. While older people with experiences of homelessness may certainly create meaningful places or spaces in shelters and ‘on the streets’, these environments are still often unsuitable by means of their inaccessibility, short-term nature, or failure to provide physical, emotional, and social security. Such contrasts underscore the need for more sustainable solutions.

One way to bridge the gap between the response to housing in earlier periods of the life course and ‘home’/care in later life is to adopt a life course perspective in research, policy and practice. We argue that a life course approach can shift the conversation from an ‘either or’ approach to housing or care, to a ‘both and’ approach to housing with support across the life course and into late life. A life course perspective draws attention to inequalities which often underlie trajectories into homelessness, as well as highlight existing gaps in services and access that may sustain rather than mitigate homelessness in late life. In doing so, it highlights the importance of housing with supports as a means to ensure that all older people have a ‘place’ within which to age and access to services. This approach is necessary to foster the well-being and social inclusion of all older people—including people who are aging in marginalized locations and are currently excluded from key frameworks of late life. For more information see our paper in full here.


Culhane, D. P., Metraux, S., Byrne, T., Stino, ., & Bainbridge, J. (2013). The age structure of contemporary homelessness: Evidence and implications for public policy. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 13(1), 228–244.

Grenier, A., Barken, R., Sussman, T., Rothwell, D., Bourgeois-Guérin, V., & Lavoie, J. P. (2016). A Literature Review of Homelessness and Aging: Suggestions for a Policy and Practice-Relevant Research Agenda. Canadian Journal on Aging/La Revue canadienne du vieillissement35(01), 28-41.

Grenier, A., Barken, R., & McGrath, C. (2016). Homelessness and aging: The contradictory ordering of ‘house’ and ‘home.’ Journal of Aging Studies, 39, 73-80.

Rowles, G. D., & Chaudhury, H. (Eds.). (2005). Home and identity in late life: International perspectives. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Rachel BarkenRachel Barken is a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Sociology at York University. Her research interests include aging, formal and informal care arrangements, the social and political aspects of home and long-term care, and gender.



Colleen McGrath

Colleen McGrath is an Assistant Professor in the School of Occupational Therapy at Western University. Her research interests focus on environmental influences on occupational engagement for older adults with age-related vision loss (ARVL), the situated nature of risk in older adulthood, and the intersection of ageism and ableism in shaping the identities of older adults. Most recently, her work has focused on better understanding the needs, preferences, and values of older adults as it relates to technology acquisition and use. She is dedicated to including older adults in the technology design, development, and marketing/commercialization process to ensure technologies are created that meet the needs of older adults. Dr. McGrath can be reached at [email protected] or you can contact her through LinkedIn (Colleen McGrath).

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