Good places for ageing in place: development of objective built environment measures for investigating links with older people's wellbeing

Elizabeth J Burton, Lynne Mitchell, Chris B Stride
BMC Public Health 2011 November 1, 11: 839

BACKGROUND: There is renewed interest in the role of the built environment in public health. Relatively little research to date investigates its impact on healthy ageing. Ageing in place has been adopted as a key strategy for coping with the challenges of longevity. What is needed is a better understanding of how individual characteristics of older people's residential environments (from front door to wider neighbourhood) contribute to their wellbeing, in order to provide the basis for evidence-based housing/urban design and development of interventions. This research aimed to develop a tool to objectively measure a large range of built environment characteristics, as the basis for a preliminary study of potential relationships with a number of 'place-related' functional, emotional and social wellbeing constructs.

METHODS: Through a review of urban design literature, design documents, and existing measures, a new tool, the NeDeCC (Neighbourhood Design Characteristics Checklist) was developed. It was piloted, refined, and its reliability validated through inter-rater tests. A range of place-related wellbeing constructs were identified and measured through interviews with 200 older people living in a wide variety of rural-urban environments and different types of housing in England. The NeDeCC was used to measure the residential environment of each participant, and significant bivariate relationships with wellbeing variables were identified.

RESULTS: The NeDeCC was found to have convincing face and construct validity and good inter-rater and test/retest reliability, though it would benefit from use of digital data sources such as Google Earth to eliminate the need for on-site survey. The significant relationships found in the study suggest that there may be characteristics of residential environments of potential relevance for older people's lives that have been overlooked in research to date, and that it may be worthwhile to question some of the assumptions about where and how older people want to live (e.g. villages seem to be positive). They also point to the importance of considering non-linear relationships.

CONCLUSIONS: The NeDeCC provides the basis for generation of evidence-based design guidance if it is used in prospective controlled studies or 'natural experiments' in the future. Ultimately, this will facilitate the creation of better places for ageing in place.

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