Precarity: Reconsidering Housing and Home

Many people hope to stay at home for as long as they can. Researchers continue to believe that the home is central to aging well. However, what is often missing from research is a discussion on how feelings of safety, security and affordability must be in place in order for one to really be able to age at home, or feel that the place they age is ‘home’. To have a positive sense of home, one must be able to afford to live at home, and feel safe as well as secure. Achieving the expected ideals of home can thus be hard for seniors who live in poverty, or if they are marginalized and excluded.


Since society values people that have a home, older people who are homeless are often deemed as ‘unsuccessful’—a key indicator of wellbeing in late life. The implications of not having a home are thus about public perceptions and realities in care. By not having a home in older age, the homeless cannot access home care services, and have no choice but to use other care systems that are more expensive, such as hospital emergency rooms or a shelter.


In thinking about ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’, we need to find a language that is inclusive of the many inequalities that can occur with regards to seniors housing and homes. The word ‘precarity’ is helpful in outlining the risks and inequalities that can happen among older adults with home and housing. Precarity means uncertainty, risk and insecurity. There are a number of ways that seniors housing can be precarious. Older people for instance may be homeless, meaning that they lack stable, permanent and secure housing. According to the Canadian Homeless Research Network, there are four sub-groups of homeless people which includes: unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally accommodated and at risk of homelessness. In addition to being homeless, many older people are provisionally accommodated or at risk for homelessness. This means that although they may not currently be homeless, they have a financial and/or housing situation that is precarious. This ‘at risk’ category can help us to understand the inequalities that exist and the need for a housing agenda that would prevent older people from falling into homelessness for the first time in later life.


What this means for policy and programming is that we need to consider both home and housing, and not either or. We need to think of the taken-for-granted ideals of home and make safe, stable and affordable housing a central part of discussions on aging, care and late life. Only through these discussions of housing and home, can we be sure that all seniors have equal access to ‘aging well.’ Precarity and precarious housing provides the language to move us forward.


Setting an Agenda- What is important for the community sector?


Communities have a responsibility to reach out to groups who are marginalized or excluded in later life and to make sure that their voices and needs are heard. We need to make sure that everyone has access to aging well and need to discuss housing older people who are at risk.


The assumption that people want to live at home throughout the life course requires that the home is safe, affordable and secure and that the needs of the senior can be met at home. These pre-requisites need to be accounted for when looking at the ‘home’ in later life. Policy structures need to be completely redesigned with this thinking in mind, and need to account for the needs of older adults who have precarious housing situations.


At the moment, all care is configured around the home without looking at the gaps faced by many people who are excluded, in poverty or marginalized. Those with less access to structures that make ‘home’ possible are put in positions of unequal aging.


Amanda Grenier is Director of the Gilbrea Centre for Aging and Gilbrea Chair in Aging and Mental Health at McMaster University. You can follow her on Twitter @ Amanda__Grenier


Emily Sully is a Master of Arts (M.A.) candidate studying health and aging at McMaster University.


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