The importance of a view from a window for older people with limited mobility


A blog about my latest paper –The importance of a room with a view for older people with limited mobility. Published in Quality in Ageing and Older Adults available here

This study was so much fun to carry out. I am absolutely delighted to get this paper out into the world. It is one of those studies that has kind of evolved over the years. Originally conceived as a study to look at how people use views from their window to overcome inability to physically get out and about, I interviewed 42 people who were largely housebound about their view from the window. It was quite clear that the project moved beyond concepts of what I and colleagues have previously called imaginary mobility (using views or pictures to reminisce or to substitute for literal mobility), to having a life of its own! Hence, initial attempts to write the paper around views as a substitute for literal mobility didn’t work so well. Initially more in-depth analysis of the data, coupled with useful suggestions from paper reviewers and editors, have brought out additional interesting material that now sits in this final paper.

The paper builds on the excellent work of Graham Rowles, back in the late 70s and early 80s, who examined older people’s view of the area immediately outside their home, known as the surveillance zone, which had hitherto only really looked at in terms of a space parents use to keep an eye on their kids (see Jane Jacobs seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities for more on this topic). Like Rowles, I found older people spend a while setting up their observation space in front of the surveillance zone  and deliberately use the space to construct narrative and meaning. The views become “thick” with meaning, a place of high significance for the observer. It seemed the views could be anything. I was expecting rural or natural views be preferential –a lot of research finds a link between nature and stress reduction. But, I found urban views or banal views to be important to people. Views might have things we would traditionally associate with being unimportant or even ugly, for example TV or telephone masts. What is more important is that the view contains both expected changes, such as changes associated with the seasons, and a rhythm between expected and non-expected happenings, which could be human – roadworks, for example, or natural, such as storms,

I love the way the trees begin to move, the branches, when the wind gets up ( female, aged 78, suburban view).

I like it when they’re digging. They’re always digging it up here. Mains, water, electricity, gas, telephone, all come here. I don’t mind it, so long as there’s no dust which is no good for my breathing. Interesting it is to watch, mind (male, aged 84, urban view).

As well as the immediate surveillance zone, the focus of Rowles’ 1981 study, I found older people really loved a view that contained different levels and a juxtaposition between the immediate and the distant was liked. So the immediate could be a built-up neighbourhood against the distant hills or immediate greenery with distant motorways or factories.

What was fascinating was how much the views helped older people understand themselves better. What they saw illustrated changes they had vaguely heard about on the TV or radio or read about in the paper, like seeing a hands-free conversation happening on a mobile phone or real life examples of bad traffic heard about on the radio,

I saw a man talking to himself. Quite animated. I was alarmed but realised it must be a phone ( female, aged 75, urban).

[…] the youngsters don’t talk anymore, not to each other, not properly. Families too, they just walk down the road, often on their phones. I don’t think people communicate right anymore ( female, aged 75, urban).

You hear them say in the news, the traffic round here is awful, well you can see it from here, backing up here and up there, especially in rush hour around 4 onwards, and especially in the winter at night (male, aged 80, suburban).

Another intriguing and unexpected findings for me was how much people created stories from what they saw, creating characters and plots,

I see the same people going to work every morning and coming home again in the evening. I wonder what they get up to. I call this one here, Frank, he looks tough, look at his suit, bet he’s a mean business man, probably a manager of some kind (male, aged 80, urban).

Some even talked to the people they saw

I sometimes comment out loud, “very smart” I’ll say or “tuck your shirt in” or “pull up your trousers” especially to the young’uns, the teens ( female, aged 84, suburban).

It may be crazy, but I do say, oh how has your day been to the regulars I see walking home, I wonder if anyone does ask them that when they get where they’re going. I hope so ( female, aged 88, urban).

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, a view from the window is important to older people. They talk about how they can spend hours there and how it feels good for them to look out. That said, many of them were worried what other people would think, that they’d be judged for their actions, for being a nosy parker or a curtain twitcher and hence many would hide what they did,

I don’t tell others about it. They’d think I’d lost it. Well it’s all a bit sad isn’t it (male, aged 84, urban).

older person at window

Looking ahead, could technology help access scenes that couldn’t be seen from the window? Webcams, windows-on-the-world technology for instance offer potential, but I’m betting it would have to be in real-time and allow the user full control over the view. Some interesting work already on this including a virtual “window to the outside world” by Gillian Dowds and colleagues, Lori Reynolds’ Virtual Nature Experience and the Video Window by Bill Gaver.

So there is the wonderful full-motion picture going on outside the people’s homes, which help people see life going on, help them make sense of the world and the things they read or hear and help them make sense of who they are themselves. We must make sure this is available to everyone, especially those who are less mobile and can’t go out and about as much as once they did. Carers, family members and care home staff must ensure access to a clean window that is not obscured. Let’s have the room set up around the window, rather than the television set!



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