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ATN Blog - Searching for the best place to age

Datum:28 maart 2022
Wesley Gruijthuijsen
Wesley Gruijthuijsen

Wesley Gruijthuijsen ( is a PhD candidate at the division of Geography and Tourism at KU Leuven (Belgium), conducting research into ageing-in-place and the importance of informal care and distance. He has a background in human geography and tourism studies. His PhD is supervised by prof. Dominique Vanneste (Geography), prof. Hilde Heynen (Architecture) and prof. Veerle Draulans (Social sciences – Gender studies).

Searching for the best place to age

It’s not rare for geographers to look into place characteristics and how they affect living conditions and social dynamics. However, the attention for older adults (65+) is often very limited. This is not only the case within geography and urban planning but also beyond. We try to bridge this gap by looking into ageing-in-place from a spatial perspective. My research is part of an interdisciplinary research project in which we try to get more insight in the relation and interrelationships between place, people and (informal) care, from the perspective of geography, architecture, and gender studies. While my PhD-colleague (Jakob D’herde) focuses on the importance of home, my own focus is on the level of the neighborhood and the relationship between ageing-in-place, informal care and distance to facilities and (informal) care. What do older people need in the neighborhood to age well in place and how do they get the support or care  that they need? We should not forget that feeling comfortable at home is not enough to obtain what Golant (2015) calls residential normalcy but that also the neighborhood and feeling in control in both the home and the neighborhood are important factors. That also implies that the ‘best’ place to get old does not exist and is to a large extent subjective. However, there exist good and less good places to age in place, and there is a need to identify them.

The further ageing of the population is of course an important reason to provide a geographical lens into the phenomenon. While at this moment around 20 percent of the people in Flanders are older than 65, this will further increase towards 25 percent in 2030. And even though there is little known about the geographical setting that influences ageing, there are some pertinent questions and challenges. Can we or do we want to make every part of the region age-friendly? What are the roles of neighborhood networks and neighbors, and how do they influence ageing in place? Is informal care available or do family members live close by?

Too often, the ageing population is presented as a ‘grey wave’ that affects every locality in the same way. But based on the demographic data we see that even in a small country like Belgium, there a high variations in population dynamics. That also means that the informal care potential of each place differs.  In general, there is not much known about distances between parents and children. That’s why we obtained data from the Belgian population register for the period between 2002 and 2017 to calculate distances between the home of all older adults (65+) and their children if any. We try to get a better understanding of distances between parents and children, as well as family and household characteristics of older adults and residential movement patterns. Furthermore, we try to get insight in the importance of certain home and neighborhood characteristics by coupling these data with the census and other (administrative) data sources.

Although the first results show that the distances between the residential locations of parents (65+) and adult children are on average very short (+- 11 km), distances alone cannot explain informal caregiving or the residential preferences of older adults. To explain or understand certain patterns resulting from the data, this study consists as well of a large qualitative part. Interviews with community-dwelling older adults were planned in spring and summer 2020, but were delayed due to the pandemic. They took place in summer 2021 (68 interviews). The pandemic however, made it possible to add an extra layer to the research. We interviewed some informal family caregivers to see how they managed to cope with the lockdown and to get more insight in the role of the neighborhood, especially in a context in which non-essential mobility was not allowed.

The interviews with informal caregivers indicate that the neighborhood did not take up a larger role in informal care during the pandemic, and that it was often the primary informal caregiver who took over (formal) duties. The interviews with older adults (still being transcribed and analyzed) show that indeed most of them express the wish to age-in-place. For the older generation (75+) this means literally staying in the own home for as long as possible, while the younger generation (65-74) is more open for a residential move if that can sustain their independence (e.g. from a family dwelling to a smaller and centrally located apartment). This wish to live independently also means that most respondents do not want to burden their children – even when they live close-by – for regular care task. However, proximity to children can give a more comfortable feeling knowing that there is help in emergency situation. These first results are to a certain extent questioning the current health policy in Flanders, which appoints a larger role towards informal care from the family and local community, in the framework of the so-called socialization of care in which care is seen as a shared responsibility.

Of course, this is just a small selection of the results from my multi-facetted and mixed-method research, which will be ongoing for the next year. In the next months I will further analyze the quantitative and qualitative data and try to combine and enrich them further. For additional information, questions or remarks, do not hesitate to contact me!


Golant, S. M. Aging in the Right Place. Health Professions Press, Inc: Baltimore, USA, 2015.


This blog was made possible by the  Aletta Talents Network. If you would like to contribute a blog for the ATN, please contact Tom at  t.a.lowe

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