Aging and cultivating a sense of place: 5 ways to increase your sense of belonging


In many parts of the world people live and die within a radius of 5 miles. In others the name of the game is move after move as people change in their careers, interests and family commitments. As we age we often stop to assess many things, particularly how we feel about the place where we live. We may be more rooted to where we are or we may be yearning to reinvent ourselves somewhere else.

How do we know when we are in a place where we can thrive for the last third of our lives? It comes down to having a sense of place.

What is a sense of place?

People’s sense of place varies. We can describe a sense of place as being the underlying feeling of belonging and attachment we get when we are in a certain location. There is a sense of being valued and engaged. Factors that can contribute to our attachment to a place not only involve family and social relationships but also are related to culture, language, geography, climate, urban/suburban/rural setting, access to nature, the political persuasion of the populace, etc.

For instance, we may feel much different in a small rural village in India than we would in a large city in the US. How different cities or rural areas affect us can also vary widely with each individual. We live in a global village but culture and sensibility are extremely different from place to place.

I will use my own experiences as an example. I feel most at home in Sonoma county just north of San Francisco. I lived for many years in SF but, as I’ve gotten older, the city no longer fulfills the need I have for warmer weather, quiet and exposure to nature. When I was in the city I lived in a neighborhood where most people knew me- in the grocery store, the cafes, the restaurants, the night spots. I felt a sense of community there. As I aged my needs changed and I relocated to a place I felt comfortable in and had visited often.

The question remains: Do I have a sense of place now? Yes and no. It takes time to develop connections and to feel that you are part of a network. I’m still working on it. It’s not as easy now as it was when I was younger.

Why might this be?

In a general sense, as people age it becomes harder to make new friends. Friendships require cultivation. We become more set in our ways. We also have less opportunities for social activities outside of the family that bind people to one another such as school and work. We go out less to social functions. Our opportunities to create community become more limited.

How can we maintain or restore our sense of place?

We all change and evolve. This takes work but is more than worth it. I like to look to others I know who are actively striving to create a meaningful life in a place that they have an affinity for. Here are 5 ways that people I know and respect are creating their place in the world as they age:

1.) Rethink your notion of work. A friend of mine is staying put in his home and is retiring. He loves his home and the area in which he lives. He is reinventing himself in a new career that he had pursued in the past but didn’t have the time or energy to pursue while he was working. This will demand that he get out of his comfort zone and network with like-minded people.

2.) Renew old friendships. This same friend has also been instrumental in organizing an online social network of a group of his former co-workers who have not seen each other in 20 years. This has led to a reunion and will bring people from all over the country together again but, even more importantly, is already leading to renewed friendships among the people who remain in the same area.

3.) Be open to putting yourself to work in another part of the world. I have a friend who is an example of someone who has not let his age dictate his social or work sphere. He continues to take on new challenges and meet new people. He travels widely and recently spent time teaching in India.

4.) Be willing to uproot yourself to pursue an adventure. Another friend has sold everything and is about to travel in the US and Mexico in an RV with her husband and mother. She expects to visit her friends, make new ones and settle somewhere that speaks to her.

5.) Find satisfaction in doing something well in a place where you’ve always been. My Godmother provides a good example of this. She is now 86 and has lived and worked all her adult life as a clerk in a medical setting and as a telephone operator in a boys’ home. She finds a lot of satisfaction working in these jobs because her involvement with the patients and residents goes way beyond her job description. She looks forward to working and the clients look forward to seeing her every day.

Essentially, what I have learned from these and other friends, is that we can open ourselves to change, adventure and community wherever we choose to land. A sense of place can be where you are right now or where you end up going. It’s a journey that never ends until you do…