Making Space for Social Relationships: Understanding ageing in social spaces

Research output: Book/ReportDoctoral thesisCollection of Articles


Social relationships play a vital part in enabling a good life in old age. The meanings of social relationships and the opportunities and restrictions associated with them are connected to the contexts within which older persons live. This study explores social relationships and spaces and places of ageing, utilising the concept of social space. In this study, social space is understood as referring to everyday spaces that have meaning for older people and in which social relationships and social activities occur, such as the home or an assisted living facility. These spaces, for their part, are affected by broader societal contexts. Of these contexts, this study considers ageing in place policy and the COVID-19 pandemic. Within these societal, spatial and temporal contexts, this study focuses on the opportunities and challenges that social spaces generate for social relationships and interaction in old age.

The data originated from the Vitality 90+ Study and Ageing and Social Well-being (SoWell) research projects conducted at Tampere University, Finland. The data utilised in this study consisted of interviews with home-dwelling nonagenarians (n=45), a group discussion (n=7) and individual face-to-face interviews (n=10) with residents of an assisted living facility, and phone interviews (n=31) conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic with older people living in an assisted living facility or at home. The age of the participants ranged between 64 and 101 years. In addition, field notes regarding participant observation (35 hours) conducted in an assisted living facility were utilised. All the data were collected in the Pirkanmaa region in southern Finland. The data were analysed using qualitative content analysis, frame analysis and positioning analysis.

The results indicated that social spaces enable and restrict social relationships and the interaction of older people. The home was a central space of social connectedness for older people, enabling, together with its surroundings, social contact and receiving help and support. However, the home was also a restricted and lonely space. An assisted living facility was also understood to be an older person’s home, but at the same time it was a multifaceted social space that included institutional and communal characteristics that enabled various kinds of social relationships and interaction. It was not self-evident that older people could move around in public space. This was because of declining functional abilities but also because of the regulation of space and the acceptability of older people’s presence in public space caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual spaces provided the means to stay connected to other people, especially for those who found that moving outside the home was difficult. However, virtual spaces were viewed concurrently as excluding older people and insufficient for fulfilling their social needs. Memories also worked as a social space an older person could visit. Similarly to the virtual space, memories could exceed the boundaries of physical space, enabling feelings of social connectedness without leaving one’s own home.

Different experiences and interpretations of social spaces and the opportunities they provide for social relationships and interaction indicate that social spaces play a central role in generating well-being in old age. The detected centrality of the home in the social life of older people in this study is a reason to critically consider ageing in place policy in which the meaning of the physical needs of older people and the physical space of the home are prioritised over social needs. The restrictiveness of spaces, which the pandemic emphasised, also reveals vulnerabilities in the spaces of ageing, such as loneliness and exclusion. Ignoring these vulnerabilities leaves older people in a disadvantaged position. The study of social relationships in old age can benefit from widening the spatial and temporal perspective from physical spaces to virtual and imaginary spaces. Nevertheless, it is important to listen to older people’s own views of the best ways to meet their social needs. This study contributes to evaluating and developing policies and practices affecting places of ageing as well as social participation and connectedness in old age.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationTampere
ISBN (Electronic)978-952-03-3193-1
Publication statusPublished - 2023
Publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (articles)

Publication series

NameTampere University Dissertations - Tampereen yliopiston väitöskirjat
ISSN (Print)2489-9860
ISSN (Electronic)2490-0028


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