Role Of The Physical Environment As People

Environmental gerontology or, as it may be labeled, the ecology of aging, typically is identified with the description, explanation, and modification/optimization of the relation between the elderly person and his or her physical environment (Wahl, 2001; Wahl and Gitlin, In press). Furthermore, by drawing from German psychologist Kurt Lewin's (1936) basic insight that behavior has to be seen as a function of the person and his or her environment, American psychologist M. Powell Lawton (1982) has suggested the ecological equation as most essential for the ecology of aging. That is, the consideration of the impact of the interaction between the aging person (P) and the environment (E) on a variety of behavioral outcomes such as well-being and functioning has been added to the isolated consideration of the person and his or her environment (Behavior = P, E, P X E). Environmental gerontology primarily considers the relevance of the full range of physical components of the environment for aging processes, but also acknowledged is the strong, integrated role of the social dimension. For example, the home environment is not only a physical structure, but also a place punctuated by pronounced intimacy with one's partner, social interactions, and the symbolization of attachment, normalcy, and loss (Rubinstein and Parmelee, 1992).

The mission of environmental gerontology within gerontology can be seen in its contributions to the understanding of prototypical environment-related tasks of the aging individual, such as preserving independence in the face of physical and mental impairments by use of environmental resources within and outside the home environment (''aging in place''), initiating processes of relocation if desired or necessary, and adapting to new living environment settings (e.g., a nursing home) after relocation.

Classic theories of aging in physical contexts The most widely acknowledged theory to be considered is the competence-press model introduced by Lawton and Nahemow (1973). Lawton and Nahemow (1973) have argued that variation in adaptational outcomes in old age are, in comparison to younger age groups (with the notable exception of early childhood), more strongly influenced by environmental conditions (Environmental Docility Hypothesis). Moreover, older adults with lower competence are expected to be particularly prone to what has been coined by Lawton and Nahemow as environmental press. In other words, the older an aging organism, the more environmental characteristics are able to contribute to the explanation of adaptational outcomes such as everyday competence or well-being. The competence-press model provides a broad, overarching framework, allowing different types and levels of competence such as sensory loss, physical mobility loss, or cognitive decline and environmental factors including housing standards, neighborhood conditions, or public transport to be considered. Perhaps the most important element of the competence press model is its fundamental assumption that for each aging person there is an optimal combination of (still) available competence and environmental circumstances leading to the relative highest possible behavioral and emotional functioning for that person. The model also suggests that it is at the lower levels of competence that older people become the most susceptible to their environment, such that low competence in conjunction with high ''environmental press'' is most detrimental for the individual's autonomy and well-being. A related argument in this concept is that as competence declines in later life, the zone of adaptation narrows such that environmental choices that can promote well-being and autonomy become increasingly constrained.

The competence-environmental press framework as suggested by Lawton and Nahemow (1973) continues to provide the basic mechanism of person-environment relations as people age and has been supported by a considerable body of empirical research. For example, research on the impact of physical distances on social interaction patterns of elders in institutional settings shows that longer distances undermine social relations, thus highlighting the ''environmental docility'' as people age (Lawton and Simon, 1968). As was also found, based on a large study with elderly Germans from East and West Germany, substandard housing conditions were significantly associated with performance deficits in the so-called activities of daily living, and higher care needs among elders in East Germany could be partly explained by the stronger prevalence of substandard housing (Olbrich and Diegritz, 1995). As has also been found, there is a substantial link between housing quality and well-being (Evans, Kantrowitz, and Eshelman, 2002).

Another family of ecology of aging approaches relevant for the present work's discussion has centered on the concept of person-environment fit. Both Kahana's (1982) as well as Carp's (1987; Carp and Carp, 1984) work is closely affiliated with this concept. According to the person-environment-fit model, misfits between an older person's objective competencies or subjective needs and the potential of the environment to support or fulfill these objective or subjective personal characteristics is detrimental to using one's full developmental potential. Inversely, person-environment fit is seen as a necessary, albeit not sufficient, precondition for such development. For example, Wahl, Oswald, and Zimprich (1999) examined the role of fit between remaining competencies of visually impaired elders and the given physical home setting, and found that lower functional ability was significantly related with lower personenvironment fit. In addition, mismatches between the needs of nursing home residents and the willingness or capacity of staff to fulfill these needs have been found to be related to their general well-being—the greater the mismatch, the lower was the observed well-being (Kahana, Liang, and Felton, 1980).

In addition to the empirical findings, the competence-press model as well as the person-environment-fit model have become major drivers in the practical world of designing and optimizing environments for older people. A scope of dimensions has been suggested as particularly important to qualify the ''right'' balance between competence and the environment such as safety, orientation, privacy, accessibility, stimulation, and control (Lawton, 2001).

Recent theories of aging in physical contexts Besides classic ecology of aging approaches, additional and parallel research streams appearing since the 1980s in environmental gerontology subsumable under the headings of meaning of home deserve mentioning. Work in the tradition of the subjective aging in place concept emphasizes the simultaneous consideration of ties inside of the aging person to his or her physical and social environment. A typical approach in this line of research is the more qualitative work of Rowles (1983) and of Rubinstein (1989). Rowles' widely acknowledged approach focuses on the many facets of what he has coined insideness. According to Rowles, different types of insideness, all speaking to the transition of ''spaces into places,'' can be found as the result of empirical analysis. Whereas social insideness arises from everyday social exchange over long periods of time, physical insideness is characterized by familiarities and routines within given settings such as the home environment. A third element of insideness has been labeled autobiographical insideness; that is, places are carrying a rich collection of memories and thus support the aging individual's sense of place identity. Empirical research also has shown that physical insideness is particularly important for aging individuals with chronically disabling conditions.

Rubinstein's (1989) conception of the meaning of home relies on the assumption that the active management of the environment in itself represents a major source of well-being as people age, especially for those who are frail or living alone. Rubinstein identifies three classes of psychosocial processes that give meaning to the home environment, namely, social-centered (ordering of the home environment based on a person's version of socio-cultural rules for domestic order), person-centered (expression of one's life course in features of the home), and body-centered (the ongoing relationship of the body to the environmental features that surround it) processes. Oswald and Wahl's (2005) analysis sheds further light on these processes by identifying how chronic conditions (in this case, ongoing mobility impairment) affect representations of the home environment. When subjects were asked what ''being at home'' means, mobility-impaired elders reported significantly more aspects of familiarity and accustomization compared to unimpaired elders.

Adding to this from another point of view, the concept of place attachment has been introduced and defined as reflecting feelings about a geographic location and emotional binding of a person to places (Rubinstein and Parmelee, 1992). As has been empirically found, place attachment seems to steadily grow across the life course, reaching its culminating point in very old age (Oswald and Wahl, 2003). This underlines the notion that forced relocation to a nursing home in very old age due to a chronically disabling condition is a critical life event and a profound challenge for maintaining well-being and a sense of identity.

The role of subjective person-place relations in aging has long been neglected in the practical field due to an overemphasis on objective characteristics such as environmental barriers or physical distances. However, it is now clearly acknowledged that objective and subjective dimensions of person-place relations are interacting in many ways. An example is a situation of objectively diagnosed need for improvement of housing quality according to standards of barrier-free environments, which might not fit well with a decade-long developed personal priority for continuity and stability of the home environment.

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