Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 2015 Publish Date: Jun. 13, 2015 Pages: 258-265

Senior Cohousing Residential Design Features for Perceived Autonomy

Mihyun Kang1,*, Melinda Lyon1, Jessy Kramp2

1Design, Housing and Merchandising, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA

2Applications/Specification Sales, Bell & McCoy Lighting and Control, Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA


This study examined the perceptions of older adults concerning which residential design features would be beneficial in senior cohousing. This study sought to understand design features promoting perceived autonomy for older adults. Interviews and a focus group were conducted with a purposive sample of older adults in the Midwest who were in the process of organizing a senior cohousing community. Grounded theory and the computer software NVivo were employed to identify reoccurring themes and design features. Five themes related to residential design for senior cohousing were recognized: Personalization, Social Engagement, Privacy, Universal Design, and Nature Involvement. A total of ten design features were identified: Display Space, Easy Upkeep, Great Room, House Orientation, Front Porch, Patio, Retreat, Space, Barrier Free Environment, Accessible Storage, and Natural Light. This study could be used to further enlighten older adults and the general public to a new alternative for housing in later life.


Aging, Older Adults, Perceived Autonomy, Residential Design Feature, Senior Cohousing

1. Introduction

The nation's older adult population is continuing to swell and, by 2035, will make up approximately 18% to 23% of the total population, nearly doubling this current age segment (Kirst & Peck, 2010). Blumenstock (2006) stated that preparations must be made to accommodate this cohort as they could easily overburden existing housing for older adults in the U.S. Although many new conceptions of housing have been developed, older adults are continuously looking for new options that will allow them to maintain autonomy, independence, and personal control over their routines (Peace, Holland, & Kellaher, 2011). The framework of communal coping provides the mechanism of aging better together intentionally (Glass & Plaats, 2013). Blumenstock (2006) suggested that housing facilities for older adults now focus more on hospitality and the comfort of their residents. Many such changes in housing could be due in part to the higher level of education and greater expectations of the rising population of older adults.

The relatively new concept of aging in place has attracted the attention of many older adults, as well as interior designers and real estate professionals, as a potential solution to housing issues for older adults. Typically, aging in place refers to an older person’s ability to continue living in his or her home without assistance for as long as possible; modifications made with accessibility in mind are generally required to make aging in place feasible ("Aging in Place," n. d.; Patteson, 2010). An alternate definition of aging in place refers to older adults relocating to housing that is specifically designed to provide a supportive environment for aging ("Aging in Place and Senior Resources," n.d.). This latter definition of aging in place, which assumes relocation, will be used in this article. Many older adults are looking for a housing option that provides a community in which they can participate based on their own choices, resident management, and an environment that will help them feel a sense of belonging due to maintained social relationships ("Elder Cohousing," 2005; Sugihara & Evans, 2000). Housing options that keep older adult residents engaged and active are thought to improve life in later years; however, a number of current housing options may not provide adequate activities for residents (Silverberg, 2010).

Many older adults in the current generation and individuals in the baby boomer cohort are dissatisfied with existing housing for older adults and are actively searching for new alternatives ("Elder Cohousing," 2005). Older adults’ dilemmas with available housing options generally include the perception of losing personal control of daily activities and of choices, having no say in the way their communities operate, and worrying about new neighbors with whom they may not get along (Silverberg, 2010). These problems with existing institutional facilities may possibly derive from missing concepts such as perceived autonomy within the housing facility. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has several key strategies for healthy aging with one of them being "reducing the factors that lead to injury and disability" (Lang, Moore, & Harris, 2005). Perceived autonomy envelops an individual’s maintained independence and self-control, which have been found to be important to older adults in their later lives (Bronstein et al., 2009; Peace et al., 2011). Because perceived autonomy may support aging in place, this study will consider the manifestation of this concept within housing design features.

One new idea in housing has begun to seep into the United States from Denmark, the concept known as cohousing. A cohousing community, originally construed as a multigenerational option, is usually made up of multiple families living in privately owned homes in a collectively managed neighborhood. These communities consist of the residents’ homes and a centrally located common house where residents may gather (Silverberg, 2010). Cohousing communities that are developed for older adult residents may offer baby boomers and the current generation an attractive housing alternative as residents would have input in the construction and operation of the community, as well as the way in which residents would continue to live their lives (Glass, 2009). Cohousing communities that are designed specifically for older adults have become known as senior cohousing communities (Durrett, 2009).

By planning ahead to live in a supportive community, older adults may be able to relinquish the fear of being forced to move straight out of their home and into an institutional setting (Abraham-Paiss, 2005). Senior cohousing creates a neighborhood of individual home and a shared common house for use by all residents to promote aging in place through appropriate housing and the establishment of community (Cohen, 2005; Peck, 2008). The site plan of a senior cohousing community is typically arranged with the individual residences circling the common house (Durrett, 2009; Silverberg, 2010). The common house is in close proximity to the individual residences to promote the overall sense of community, and it is in a central location that residents pass through during their daily activities (Sugihara & Evans, 2000; Durrett, 2009; Glass, 2009). Despite challenges, older adults indicate feelings of safety and comfort through being part of an interdependent community (Glass, 2013). Senior cohousing communities have developed from this overarching idea as a way to explicitly manage the needs of older adults looking for a housing option that provides social support, independence, and positive well-being through their life course (Cohen, 2005; Durrett, 2009). The purpose of this study was to examine residential design features that older adults perceive as beneficial to their ability to age in place in senior cohousing communities. The objective of this study was to understand what residential design features promote autonomy. As a result, the study looked at older adults’ needs and concerns as they pertain to the built environment, not the health of these individuals. Older adults’ perceptions of housing regarding their needs and concerns, such as those outlined in this study, provide potentially significant implications for proponents of aging in place.

2. Autonomy and Older Adult Well-Being

Andresen, Runge, Hoff, & Puggaard (2009) contend that independence, along with culture, religion, and personal control, all influence a person’s autonomy. Individuals who thought of their homes as meaningful due to physical, social, or emotional reasons were found to be more independent in accomplishing their daily activities, better with environmental control, and less likely to develop depressive symptoms (Oswald et al., 2007; Wagner et al., 2010). Maintaining autonomy through independence and personal control of one’s activities, choices, and life is a common concern among aging populations (Bronstein et al., 2009; Danziger & Chaudhury, 2009; Peace et al., 2011). Many older adults believe that after they are no longer able to live alone in their homes, choosing to live in another housing option would be better than making their care the responsibility of their children or other family members. Others fear losing personal control of their social lives and daily routines as they believe moving to many of the current housing options will force them to give up all of these choices (Peace et al., 2011; Hwang, Cummings, Sixsmith, & Sixsmith, 2011).

By maintaining their autonomy, older adults may expect to preserve their well-being and, with environmental stimulation, to maintain a higher level of self-confidence, which may result in successful aging in place (Lawton, 1977). In senior cohousing, many features are in place to ensure that residents have the ability to continue living autonomously to benefit their confidence and health during their later years of life (Lawton, 1977; Durrett, 2009). Older adults recognize that the core of creating a livable community is a consumer-driven approach and collaboration with various community partners (Hwang, Glass, Gutzmann, & Shin, 2008).

As stated previously, senior cohousing communities offer social interaction, engagement in activities, and independence, all found to be related to improved health. Design of the common house and individual residences makes these buildings adaptable and accessible for all members of the community so that everyone is able to contribute and preserve their well-being (Durrett, 2009; Oswald et al., 2007).

Housing options that promote the concept of perceived autonomy may be an essential component of what older adults are missing in current housing facilities. As the baby boomer cohort and current older adults search through the available types of housing, they will likely make decisions based on the potential support for later life well-being, maintained independence, and personal control of their future years.

3. Methods

Individual interviews and a focus group were conducted with potential members of a senior cohousing community. Each interview was held either in the participant’s home or another location of the participant’s choosing. The focus group was conducted in a public meeting room.

3.1. Participants of the Study

The researchers recruited a purposive sample of 11 older adults, ranging in age from 55 to 85, who were living within a rural community in the Midwest. Of the 11 participants, 10 completed individual interviews and 4 participated in the focus group. These individuals were associated with a local group of older adults that was in the process of organizing a senior cohousing community within the town. Members of this group who were currently living in single-family residences and who had never lived within any form of housing specifically for older adults formed the pool from which the participants were selected. Due to their membership within such a group, these older adults were considered to have working knowledge and understanding of how senior cohousing communities operate. This group was approached for the study by the researchers through the group’s advertised website, which included the phone numbers and emails of many of the individual members. The researchers contacted members by emailing or calling them and describing the content of an advertisement flyer that introduced the two research sessions.

3.2. Data Collection

Older adults who agreed to participate in the first session of this study were asked to take part in individual, informal interviews that were audio recorded. Each interview, which was scheduled between the researcher and the participant for a specific time and place, took a total of 20-40 minutes and examined the opinions of the potential resident regarding residential floor plan design of senior cohousing communities. The results of the interviews were used to formulate questions that were later asked of the focus group. The purpose of the interviews was to expand on the perceptions participants had of various features of residential design.

Sample members who agreed to participate in the second session of this study, the focus group, were contacted by the researchers who proposed the designated time and place for the meeting. The individuals were asked to participate in the audio-recorded focus group with the goal of collecting older adults’ opinions and perceptions on residential design. Questions regarding the themes that were ascertained from the interviews were developed to gather feedback from participants in the focus group. These questions assessed participants’ opinions to gain insight on how their perceptions of senior cohousing were tied to residential design that contributes to autonomy in later years.

3.3. Data Analysis

Audio recordings from the individual interviews were transcribed by the researchers and used to formulate the questions that guided the focus group in the second research session. Transcribed data from the individual interviews were reviewed using grounded theory wherein data are broken down, compared, and put into categories (Walker & Myrick, 2006). In addition, the computer software NVivo was utilized and recurring themes were identified from the interviews regarding participants’ perceptions of and opinions about residence design in senior cohousing. In the NVivo software, data were organized by the researchers into categories that could then show how many times each category was referenced by participants and how many of the participants mentioned something correlated to each category. Questions regarding these themes were then developed for the focus group session. Recordings from the focus group were analyzed according to the length of time various topics were discussed to identify design features that were common among sample participants.

4. Results

Concepts that emerged from the individual interviews were called themes and were used to produce questions for the focus group; these questions were more detailed and specific to residential design features for a senior cohousing community. The questions in the focus group elicited detailed responses from participants regarding housing design, which were later identified as design features.

4.1. Residential Design Themes

A total of five themes related to residential design for senior cohousing communities were recognized: Personalization, Social Engagement, Privacy, Universal Design, and Nature Involvement. These five themes that emerged from the individual interviews in the first portion of this study were scrutinized by the researchers and used to develop questions for the second research session, the focus group.

Personalization was the most referenced theme, and it incorporated two concepts: downsizing and taking personal belongings. Downsizing specifically relates to moving into a home that is much smaller in square footage than one’s previous home. Participants discussed many areas involved with the idea of downsizing, such as reducing personal belongings, passing belongings on to one’s children, and preparing to sell one’s existing home. While participants found many items to be trivial and easy to discard, the decision to let go of possessions with more sentimental value was much more difficult. Items with such emotional weight or those that would serve a daily, functional purpose were often selected by participants to be taken to their new residences. The element of taking personal belongings was mentioned by all of the members participating in the interviews, each of whom expressed beliefs or commented on specific possessions they believed would be important to take with them to their new homes. Many of the participants elaborated on the particular possessions they wanted to take with them, and some spoke of possessions they wanted to take but would be unable to. The idea of leaving meaningful belongings with one’s children proved to be an attractive alternative to simply selling or discarding keepsakes. However, it was noted by participants that the children did not place as much value on the cherished items as did the parents.

The theme recognized as Social Engagement was also mentioned by each of the participants in the interviews and included topics such as proximity of houses, visitation on individuals’ front porches, and the building of community relationships with other senior cohousing members. Participants noted that having front porches facing one another across common sidewalks in the community would be an easy way to start informal communication on a consistent basis. They believed that the proximity of the front porches and ease of seeing who was available for conversation would benefit the development of their friendships with other members.

Another theme that was discussed by all participants in the interviews was Privacy. Participating members spoke of two main areas of privacy in a senior cohousing community: privacy within the homes and the private back patio spaces outside the individual homes.

Participants indicated that privacy in the homes would be easily attainable. Remarks regarding the latter part of this theme were geared toward the participating members’ senior cohousing community. The group had previously defined the community’s terms of privacy outside the homes, and all members were to respect one another’s privacy when they were on their back patios. Some participants added that they planned to landscape around their back patios as a way to create a vegetative screen for additional privacy.

Universal Design was discussed by all of the interview participants. Although many of the individuals were unaware of this professional term, they spoke of features in residential design that are associated with universal design principles. Participants’ opinions and perceptions of this topic were geared toward various problematic situations and needs that they had already experienced or believed they would experience in their future. These situations and needs included modifying their current homes, personally experiencing a disabling ailment or watching a friend or family member develop one, and thinking about their own or other community members’ future needs. They believed specific design features could be beneficial to everyone in all residences if they ever had to deal with a mobility-limiting injury or disability.

The theme recognized as Nature Involvement was discussed by the majority of the interview participants. This theme included having outdoor space for relaxation and enjoyment, space for gardening as a hobby, vistas available for viewing from the individual residences, and natural light. Participants mentioned that having an outdoor space in which they could relax was an important factor in their choice of a home in the senior cohousing community that was being built. Several participants wanted space into which they could transfer the plants they already had or space in which they could grow new plants. For these participants, taking care of their plants and gardening was an established hobby and a way to spend time outside. Several of the participants noted that they enjoyed having a nice view of the outdoors from the interior and exterior of their homes and that this was something they might miss from their current residences. Those who mentioned natural light noted to the researchers that they enjoyed natural lighting within their current homes and would like to have it in their future homes as well.

4.2. Residential Design Features

A total of ten design features were identified from the focus group: Display Space, Easy Upkeep, Great Room, House Orientation, Front Porch, Patio, Retreat Space, Barrier Free Environment, Accessible Storage, and Natural Light. The relationship between themes and design features is illustrated in Table 1. Design features in more than one theme category are shown in italics. Front Porch was used to indicate the front of the individual residences, and Patio was used to indicate the back of the residences.

Table 1. Residential Design Themes and Design Features.

Theme Design Features
Personalization Display Space, Easy Upkeep, Great Room
Social Engagement House Orientation, Great Room, Front Porch
Privacy Patio, Retreat Space
Universal Design Barrier Free Environment, Accessible Storage
Nature Involvement Front Porch, Patio, Natural Light

Display Space was considered significant in the development of the senior cohousing residence floor plans. When participants were asked if they would prefer to have larger windows within a home versus having more wall space on which to display their memorable possessions, they responded that they wanted to have both options. One participant pointed out what she believed to be a wonderful solution that was to be used in their senior cohousing community: the architect was using the concept of clerestory windows in the great room area to allow in large amounts of natural light above while leaving ample wall space below for display.

The design feature Easy Upkeep was an important subject among participants as they were looking forward to downsizing to smaller residences that required less time and energy to clean and maintain. Participants spoke of required tasks at their current homes for which they no longer wished to be responsible, such as yard upkeep, pool maintenance, and the continued cleaning of rooms that went unused.

The design feature identified as Great Room was associated with the design of the public areas within a residence. Regarding floor plans, the participants expressed a clear preference for an open space in the living, dining, and kitchen areas as all of the floor plans would be much smaller in square footage than the homes in which they were currently living. The Great Room concept, the use of an open floor plan as well as higher ceilings, was perceived as a viable means of increasing the feeling of spaciousness within the homes. Participants commented on why they thought it was more important that these rooms be open to one another stating that it was pleasant to be able to continue communication with guests or family members even when in different areas of the home. Participants also mentioned that having one large space was more efficient than having multiple rooms with extra furniture pieces that they didn’t use.

Participants discussed how they believed the individual homes in a senior cohousing community should be oriented on the site. In terms of House Orientation, many participants believed that the individual homes needed to face one another to ensure that community relationships would naturally flourish through daily communication.

From discussions concerning participants’ desires for the exterior spaces of their homes, the design feature Front Porch was established. Participants voiced their own ideas for their front porches, as well as ideas other members had mentioned to them. The wide variety of uses for the space included visiting spontaneously with neighbors, having an extra space to enjoy meals, housing potted plants, and creating an extension of the home for storage or covered parking for bikes or scooters.

After discussing possible uses for the front porch of their individual homes, participants commented on their expectations for the space at the back of their houses. The design feature Patio dealt with further ideas participants had for the exterior of their homes. These ideas generally concerned having an area for pets to be kept outside and needing an outdoor space to serve as a retreat and a place to relax. It was important to some participants to have an outside area to keep pets that would be moving with them to the community. They noted that the space would need to be able to contain the pets as they did not want them roaming freely throughout the community; it was suggested that this could be accomplished by having a multipurpose, screened-in area on the patio.

Privacy was mentioned in the focus group as participants discussed the design feature that was identified as Retreat Space. Participants agreed that the individual residence would be the safe place to which each individual could retreat for personal time in a senior cohousing community. Though they liked the concept of having a welcoming community right outside the front door, a place to be alone was important to participants as well. When discussing the various rooms they would prefer within the different floor plans, participants had many specific ideas including the addition of a second bedroom to be used for extra workspace, a place for guests to stay the night, or space to house a computer desk or television that was out of sight of the main living room. Some spoke of including an extra bathroom for visitors and guests who might stay the night.

Participants expressed their perceptions and opinions of features they believed were important in a residence and beneficial to any individual needing support. They noted that having a Barrier Free Environment in their homes would allay fears about what areas might become inaccessible if they were to have an impairment-causing accident or illness. Participants also mentioned that features such as higher toilet seats, grab bars, roll-in showers, and wide doorways were beneficial not only to them as they aged but also to people of all ages.

Accessible Storage was also a thoroughly discussed topic. Participants gave varying opinions on having storage spaces in a residence and the amount of storage they believed they needed or did not need at different times. One participant pointed out that the type of storage space is important as individuals grow older and maneuvering around the home becomes more difficult. Storage space that could be accessed without taking a physical risk was the primary concern.

Natural Light was another design feature that focus group participants highly agreed upon and discussed fervently. All participants had a preference for natural lighting within the home and shared their opinions on why it was important. One participant mentioned that natural lighting was greatly needed for aging individuals as people need more light to see as they age. It was also believed that natural lighting does not create as much glare as artificial lighting and that relying more on natural light than artificial was another way for senior cohousing members to be environmentally friendly. Despite the overwhelming preference for natural light, participants conceded that sufficient artificial lighting was needed during evenings and on dark, cloudy days.

5. Discussion

For older adults to be successful at aging in place in a new residence, they need to develop an attachment to that residence and continue to feel independent (Oswald et al., 2010). Residential design themes and design features that promote autonomy were discussed.

If older adults are able to easily keep up with their homes and their daily activities are supported by the design of their homes, they will most likely continue to feel independent as they age. Maintaining independence has been found to be a common concern among older adults as they often worry about retaining control over their activities and personal choices as they grow older (Bronstein et al., 2009; Peace et al., 2011). Independence, culture, religion, and having personal control have all been found to impact an individual’s perceived autonomy (Andresen et al., 2009). Two themes are considered to support this assumption: Privacy and Universal Design. These themes were described by participants as relating to their needs for having a personal space that would sustain them and their abilities to complete their everyday tasks.

Peace et al. (2011) remarked that having private and personalized space was a factor in having a high quality life in older adulthood, meaning the individual home environments would need to adjust to various stages of support for an aging resident. In the current study, the theme Privacy and the design features Patio and Retreat Space were observed to reinforce this idea as participants explained their needs for a private home in which they could be alone and still feel autonomous by having supportive design features. The design feature Patio was considered relevant to the theme Nature Involvement as well. These design features reiterated the significance of having a private space as well as the continued importance of meeting residents’ needs and allowing older adults to live independently.

Participants commented on how they believed a supportive environment that contained Universal Design features was beneficial to people of all ages and would especially be an aid to them. Participants also remarked that they wanted their new homes to be easy to maintain as well as supportive of their changing needs as they aged. Others who had witnessed friends or family members become isolated by dealing with an accident or disability alone, emphasized the need for Universal Design. Barrier Free Environment and Accessible Storage were design features that related to Universal Design. The buildings and homes in senior cohousing communities are generally designed to meet these criteria, as accessibility is critically important for the healthy aging of older adults (Peck, 2008; Oswald et al., 2007). The design feature Barrier Free Environment was related to creating supportive environments that would be easy for individuals with varying abilities to use. The design feature Accessible Storage was also relevant to this belief as it reflects the importance participants placed on being able to fully use their homes in the years to come, regardless of their physical abilities.

Additionally, the design feature Easy Upkeep under the theme Personalization was related to autonomy. Participants explained that reducing the number of their possessions was an important task for them to complete before moving into their new homes and that they often felt relieved to be rid of their excess belongings. Participants believed that a supportive home would provide them with easy access to everything they would need for their daily activities, no matter their physical abilities. The potential of having more spare time was also relished as participants hoped to spend less time cleaning and maintaining their future homes in the community. They also noted that having a home that would be accessible and easy to maintain for years to come was very important as it could allow them more spare time and the ability to remain independent as long as possible.

6. Conclusions

This study sought to explore features of individual homes in senior cohousing communities and determine how such features could best allow older adults to age in place. To further this endeavor, the promotion of perceived autonomy was selected a design objective for this study. Participants in this study believed that senior cohousing communities could offer older adults a new, optimal alternative for housing as they age.

This study had several limiting factors, though. First, the sample used was small, containing only eleven participants from one senior cohousing community. Therefore, the results of this study are not generalize-able to the larger population of older adults; rather, this was a case study of only one site. Second, the wide age range among the 11 participants is another limitation; participants ranged in age from 55 to 85 years of age. Third, senior cohousing communities were considered to be a relatively new development in the United States at the time of this study; only five completed communities existed in various regions around the country. As these communities were a new development, they were also new subjects for research.

Many of this study’s findings are considered relevant for future research on the same or similar topics. Future research based on this study could take several directions. For example, the data collected from the individual interviews and focus group could be further analyzed in order to study an issue such as overall health in this group of participants and in other, more homogenous samples since health of the individuals was not analyzed in this study. Other senior cohousing members from various communities could also take part in interviews and focus groups to further understand the features older adults expect in alternative housing options. It would also be beneficial to perform post-occupancy studies with senior cohousing members who have been living in their existing communities. In this way, senior cohousing communities could be examined to determine whether or not they are meeting members’ expectations and if current literature is still being supported.

In addition to contributing to the body of knowledge concerning housing choices for older adults, this study’s findings could benefit the public and professional realms. This study could also be used to further enlighten older adults and the general public to a new alternative for housing in later life. As more is known about senior cohousing communities and the literature begins to expand, a greater portion of older adults can be reached with information about this attractive housing alternative.


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