My garden backs onto sheltered homes – designed for people over 55.

These compact, purpose-built bungalow homes each have with their own front door and outdoor space. A  mix of one or two bedrooms it is a fold with a mix of couples and singletons

Set in clusters, in quiet cul-de-sacs (with parking) residents of this fold are a community located beside both private and social housing developments.

I first met Gertie as she was hanging out her washing. 

We used to chat through our shared  fence.  She was German, but had lived in Canada with her husband George. They had no children they moved back to Northern Ireland to be closer to his family, for their old age. 

At that time she was probably well into her eighties.

She would say to me: “Don’t get old Nuala, don’t get old…”

What she meant was: it’s no fun to be old  – and in poor health.

As an older person with health issues, her day to day experiences at this stage of life was very different from when she was younger.

 One day George’s sister called me over to the fence to tell me the sad news  that Gertie had died. Not long after that George went into a care home. 

Since then there have been many occupants of this home. But, because they never use the garden I never  see them face to face, and I so never get to know them.

Designed to suit people’s needs at a certain stage of life these homes are small, and easy to manage.  There are safety features, support staff and, because it is a rental property, the maintenance is all taken care of. That takes away a lot of the hassle of homeownership. There is peace of mind knowing that you will not have to face a huge bill for a new boiler, roof tiles, windows.

With an ageing population there is a huge demand for this type of housing. 


I used to wave to a man who lived in the corner house. He had a big, black cat.  One day there was an ambulance at his door. A few days later the house was cleared. The decorators moved in and within ten days someone else was living there.

That’s the way it works.

There is always a big turnover of occupants because there is always someone who needs (and wants) to live there. 

From my bedroom window  I used to see a resident quietly tending her plants, sitting in the sun enjoying the peace and quiet of her back garden. Someone else lives there now. All the climbing plants, so carefully cultivated, have been removed.

And so, the circle of occupancy and spatial appropriation, begins again.

Gardens can be a burden –  or a pleasure.

Not every resident wants, or is able to, look after a garden.

For those who are interested it gives them a space to create and enjoy. But, there is more to it than that. Every day, when they are outside in their garden people who pass by stop to chat and to admire the garden. Everyone living around here knows these residents  – or at least their gardens.


My great-aunt Annie, and Uncle Joe, lived in the same home all their lives – until they had to move into nursing care.

They had no reason, or urge to live anywhere else.  Their neighbours may have lived in more modern, more comfortable environments but their attachment to their home was deep.

I am sure they couldn’t imagine living anywhere else

On property websites the appeal of an old house, of faded grandeur, usually comes with: overgrown gardens, very large rooms and outdated décor – all in a dubious state of repair. The tell-tale sign lies in  the kitchen; a single hard-backed chair (with crocheted rug) beside a very old range. It is obviously the home of an elderly person  who spends all their time in one room. But, with some TLC  a quality period home will likely be sold, reimagined, modernised and made into a home again, to suit contemporary needs.

Property and auction websites often sell homes marketed as: ‘ in need of some modernisation’. Typically, with these homes, the upkeep stopped many years ago. It does not take long for a house to lapse through stages of untidiness, to neglect, to total disrepair.

In any home the décor can be removed, the layout re-modelled and the appearance completely transformed.

But still, there may be some trace of the people who lived there before. It may be just a tree… a layer of wallpaper… a doodle etched into the woodwork. In period homes there is a certain romance about finding a human touch to connect current and past residents (and their stories). A ‘Blue Plaque’ on a wall – because someone famous once lived there – radically changes how we see that home. It is not just a house, it is the home of ‘somebody’.

Of course, too much ‘personality’ in decor can put people off. It feels too much like someone else still lives there: their taste, their life, their home – their personality.

Over our lifetime, most of us will live in many different homes.

A 2017 report by Zoopla indicated that homeowners in UK move once every 23 years – compared to every 8.6 years in more buoyant times. This does not include renters in metropolitan areas where moving home is more frequent.

As we get older our circumstances and needs change. Our much-loved home may become too difficult to manage – or to afford.  It is a life-decision that we would hope to be able to make ourselves. In some cases it may be one that is made for us. 

For people looking to downsize “Tiny homes” are an alternative housing model – before assisted living. Popular in the US, they are built either for semi-retirement, holiday homes or as high-spec homes.

Tiny Homes are an amazingly inventive use of interior space. But in scale and size of course they set a limit to your choices in furniture, guests, belongings, lifestyle.

When you buy a Tiny Home you work closely with the designer so that all the design decisions are tailored for your tastes and way of living . As one couple point out:  the secret to living in a Tiny House is that “you have to get in touch with your relationship with stuff’. 

We all have to ask ourselves: what possessions do we really need?

What do we actually use?  

The residents of the fold beside me rent their homes. Their design decisions will be largely cosmetic –  and removable. Each resident has a level of freedom to decorate the space as they make it their home. From the outside you can easily tell those who have engaged with the space – and those who have not.

Old age… it’s not something any of us looks forward to. It seems to suddenly comes upon us. 

Some friends recently set about future-proofing their homes. They have re-worked and extended their house so they can live very comfortably on one level. They are thinking ahead in case one, or both, of them cannot manage the stairs.

From 2012 in Housing Assocations in Northern Ireland must adhere to standards based on Lifetime Homes (LTH). The General Needs Design Standards indicates that bungalow-style housing ‘ is wasteful in terms of land use required compared to other forms of development‘. It is only in exceptional circumstances in a mixed-use social housing development that bungalows will be permitted.

Creating apartment dwellings for older people creates a spatialised demographic. With no private outdoor space they will have less opportunity to encounter other types of people. Which is a shame.

A Lifetime Home is designed to accommodate people longterm – as, or  if, their physical needs change. A one-size fits does not suit all, of every size, at every stage of life.

We make our homes in places and spaces designed by other people, and previously lived in by others.

And some day, your home will belong to someone else.

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights within the social/spatial sphere.

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