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Becoming homebound by choice and constraint: a mixed-methods look into ageing and mobility transitions

Michel Després


This paper focuses on the transition of mobility practices and more specifically how certain older individuals experience patterns of Déprises leading them to adopt a more homebound lifestyle. As individuals age and advance in their life cycle, their capacities for mobility are prone to change, along with their lifestyles. Sometimes these changes are voluntary and done in a proactive manner, sometimes they are the product of external events. In some instances, following a transition period, these changes can result in a loss of mobility capacities, a continuation or reconfiguration of activities, or sometimes even an extension of mobility capacities, and therefore autonomy. As shown in earlier research, this process takes place in ways that are as diverse as the life course of each individual. This diversity, however, is still underrepresented in research, where older adults are often studied as a block according to their age (65+, 75+). This paper aims to delve deeper into the events and process leading to transition in mobility capacities among diverse profiles of older adults living in urban and suburban environments. To do so, the paper first presents results from statistical analysis showing how mobility practices can differ in older adults of different age groups representing different moments of the life cycle. Focusing afterward on a specific profile (the Stay-at-home), the article uses interview data to illustrate how diverse events, decisions and adaptation strategies led diverse individuals to become more homebound over the course of ageing. The article exposes a diversity of situations among Stay-at-home individuals, with transitions that are chosen or suffered. We conclude on strategies this plurality of Stay-at-home use to maintain their mobility and how we can support them to help them keep their autonomy.

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1In the face of increasingly pressured health and long-term-care systems in ageing societies, there have been increasing calls to help older adults maintain their health, autonomy, and independence for as long as possible. To do so, a growing current of research has shown the importance of studying the spatial mobility patterns of ageing individuals, both to better understand the diversity of lifestyles among older adults, and to gain better insight at the challenges to mobility in contrasted urban environments.

2Ageing is both a process and a state. As the human body grows older, it tends to get frailer, especially around the age of 75 years old. Very few are unaffected by any health problem or diminishing of their physical and mental capacities before their death. According to the ecological theories of Lawton & Nahemow (as referred to in Lawton 1986) and Bronfenbrenner (1995), such a decline often leads to an increase in the “environmental pressure” felt during daily activities. According to recent ecological theories, it is expected for older adults to “resist” and adapt by using various strategies to diminish the stress encountered in their daily travels and activities (Wahl et al., 2012).

3Previously called the “disengagement” process, the adaptation process was long thought to be continuous and to take the form of a perpetual decline of individual capacities, leading to social isolation and, eventually, the complete immobility of the older adult (Marshall and Bengston, 2011). More recent research has shown that this is not always the case and that the adaptation to “environmental pressure” ebbs and flows throughout the life course and ageing, with moments of disengagement from activities that become too stressful (Caradec, 2010). Clément et al. used the concept of “Déprise” to define this withdrawal of public participation from older adults, which when faced with difficulties, decide to abandon or reconfigure activities in order to save energies (1995). While often associated with a form of disengagement, it has been shown that, after a transition period, this process of Déprise can sometimes lead to a reconfiguration of activities, or even a re-engagement in new ones (Caradec, 2010). Therefore, despite being associated with a more or less gradual decline, this shows there are multiple ways the “Déprise” withdrawal can take place.

4Being active, rather than passive, actors in their ageing course, older adults make use of their “Daily life intelligence” (Massot et al., 2010) in order to adapt their activities in accordance with their lifestyle and capacities. Abandoning activities, be it from old age or because of life events, can be devastating emotionally, but it can also be an opportunity to engage more with other activities, as shown by older adults taking up gardening or reading when other activities, like shopping, became too difficult (Lord and Luxembourg, 2006).

5The concept of “adaptation” of daily activities and travels, in this regard, is strongly associated to what Kaufmann calls “Motility”, which defines aptitudes and aspirations toward mobility (Kaufmann and Faith Strelec, 2011; Kaufmann, 2002). The combination of aptitudes and aspirations, as put forward by Kaufmann, defines the potential distance and time-budget individuals are willing (and are able) to cover in case of necessity, namely in the case they need to find alternative destinations to pursue their daily activities. In this regard, says Kaufmann, mobility may be seen as a form of capital, unevenly distributed among individuals depending on their socioeconomic status and residential location (Kaufmann, 2002).

Mobility Practices at Different Moments of the Life Course

6As presented by Kaufmann (2014), and evidenced by Clément et al. 1995, or Lord, 2011 through the analysis of patterns of Déprises, these mobility capabilities also change largely across moments in the life cycle. This is highlighted, as found in a doctoral thesis (Després, 2021), namely through the difference between age groups in the study of mobility practices, but also through stories of experience of various profiles of older adults explaining how they adapted their practices over the years.

7This doctoral thesis compared two age groups: the “seniors” (aged between 55 and 75 years old) and the “elders” (76 years old or more) using data from a non-probabilistic questionnaire survey conducted in the Montréal and Laval region on daily activities and health. A sample of 105 “elders” were recruited via a panel (Kestens et al., 2016), to which was added an additional sample of 48 “seniors” recruited via community associations for the doctoral thesis. These individuals completed extensive questionnaires about their daily activities, their transportation mode, their social network, their health, and their relationship to their neighbourhood. The sample comprised of 86 women and 66 men, living in the urban area of the Montréal and Laval regions in Québec, Canada.

Figure 1: Distribution of respondents in the Montréal and Laval regions (M. Després)

Figure 1: Distribution of respondents in the Montréal and Laval regions (M. Després)
  • 1 This means that the ellipsis size varies not only according to the distance of activities from one (...)

8From this database, 22 indicators associated with mobility practices were extracted and separated into five categories (see table 1). On top of indicators associated to the travel frequency of individuals, the type of activities they perform, the proximity of these activities and their preferred mode of transportation, the analysis also includes spatial data associated to a representation of the actual “action space” (see Dijst, 1999 or Perchoux et al. 2015) of these individuals. Represented in this instance by an ellipsis, this measure presents a visualisation of the area taken on the urban territory by daily activities at a given time, weighted by travel frequency1.

Figure 2: Example of an action-space representation

Figure 2: Example of an action-space representation

Table 1: Indicators of mobility practices used in analysis

Table 1: Indicators of mobility practices used in analysis

9Following their extraction, these indicators were used in principal component analysis to form 6 factors: Diversity of activities, Car dependency, Dispersion of activities, Public Engagement, Shopping vs Leisure, Proximity/Polarisation of activities. These factors were then introduced in clustering analysis to identify various mobility profiles among the two age groups.

Figure 3: Classification of seniors and elders’ profiles according to their mobility practices

Figure 3: Classification of seniors and elders’ profiles according to their mobility practices

10From this analysis, five mobility profiles have been identified. The first is the Diversified, a profile of individuals with more numerous and diverse activities than the other profiles, and high use of the car (around 80% of trips). The Engaged is the second profile, individuals who have a time structure defined by social activities, like volunteering, making visits to relatives in need or work activities. Moderate to high use of the car (50-80% of trips). The Dispersed is the third profile. These elders differ from the others by having much larger action-space ellipses than other profiles. These individuals, who often own summer homes or have obligations in other towns, frequently make back and forth trips outside of the metropolitan areas. They are also moderate to high car users (50-80% of trips). The Urban Multimodals are the fourth profile. In contrast to all other profiles, these individuals are much more frequent walkers and users of public transit, which are used to make most trips. The last profile, and the one we will focus on in this article, is the Stay-at-home. This is a profile of individuals with few, less diverse activities than the other profiles. Typically, these individuals spend most of their time at home, going to the grocery store or to a pharmacy by car once a week. They predominantly use the car (between 80 and 90% of trips). Of the two age groups analysed, this profile only appears among the elderly sample.

11A few insights can be gathered from the identification of these mobility profiles. The first one is that despite age difference, the younger age group (55-74) showed an interesting continuity of lifestyles with the older group (76+), with very similar mobility profiles. This continuity is expressed namely by similar relationship to car mobility, with four out of five profiles being mainly car users. While this makes sense at first glance for individuals living in more suburban parts of the city, where public transit is rare and walking to destinations can be a challenge, it is notable that this reliance on car mobility is also well represented among seniors and elderly people living in more central neighbourhoods. Even among Urban Multimodals, a group which generally lives in denser neighbourhoods well served with public transit, most still own a car which they use regularly. Case in point, car mobility accounts for at least a quarter, sometimes nearly half of travels even among Urban Multimodals.

12This isn’t to say that urban form is irrelevant and doesn’t have an impact on car dependency. Living in more central neighbourhoods, as is the choice of most Urban Multimodals and numerous individuals of other profile, does appear to have a significant effect on the mobility options available. Putting Urban Multimodals aside, individuals of each profile, even Stay-at-home shows higher percentages of trips made by walking and public transit when they live in inner-city neighbourhoods, even if car mobility remains their preferred option.

13These results, however, show a certain continuity in lifestyles, with most of them revolving around car mobility, among older individuals at different points of their life cycle. This is coherent with the results of a variety of research on ageing individuals in North American (Lord, 2009, 2011; Fisker, 2011) and European contexts (Perchoux et al., 2015; Haustein, 2012, 2015; Wettstein et al., 2015) suggesting that, despite opening to new mobility options, younger and older seniors still show a clear attachment for car mobility, which is still associated with a feeling of freedom and autonomy other modal options can’t yet provide.

14A second important insight we can gather from these analyses shows an important distinction between the two age groups, with a profile of Stay-at-home present only among older individuals in our sample. As shown previously, these individuals, either by choice or constraint generally perform very few activities and limit their travels to a radius of proximity, making them more akin to the figure of the typical fragilized elder. They also tend to be older than elders’ individuals of other profiles, although the small size of the sample doesn’t allow to verify if this difference is statistically significant.

15The presence of this profile among the older age group suggests several individuals, who, as they grew in age, reduced their level of activity to the point of becoming almost homebound, either by choice or constraint. As such, this behaviour would be coherent with patterns of “Déprise” (Clément et al., 1995) observed among ageing individuals, which are patterns in which some daily activities that become too difficult or effortful with ageing are abandoned to save energies. This is a common instance of transitions which happen over the course of old age, often leading to a reduction of activities and a more selected use of urban space.

16Lord (2011) found out over the course of a longitudinal study on the action-space of 102 elderly suburbanites (aged 65 years and over) five years apart that certain patterns of changes happened, with some individuals changing transportation modes or their lifestyles as a result of a health decline. Some of these patterns of changes include the limitation of activities to a proximity radius, to a selected choice of accessible destinations or even sometimes inside their home. In a similar fashion, Haustein (2012) in her study noted some significant changes associated to age in the mobility practices of older adults, with the older individuals tending to be more often disabled, living alone and being “Captive” of their transportation mode, be it the car or public transit than their younger counterparts. Stjernborg et al. (2014) also encountered comparable results in a longitudinal study of a married couple in Sweden, which despite its low sample, provided insights into the lived experience of older adults getting increasingly frailer with age, more car-dependent and increasingly more homebound due to the time requirements associated with activities and limited access to transportation modes (Stjernborn et al. 2014).

17As shown in this longitudinal research, the mobility practices of older adults are prone to change over the course of the life cycle. Titled “transitions” (Bronfenbrenner, 1986), “bifurcations” (Abbott, 2001; De Coninck, Godard, 1990), or “folds” (Schwanen et al., 2012), the changes of habits over the life course show a co-evolution of the geographical space of activities and various moments of the life cycle, in what can be called the “spatialities of ageing” (Schwanen et al., 2012). In ageing and mobility studies, studying the changes of mobility practices over time appears crucial in order to understand the variations of the ageing process in various environments.

18Apart from questions of capabilities and accessibility to resources, mobility practices are the embodied results of residential lifestyles, personal abilities toward mobility, past experiences of adaptation and aspirations toward mobility, which are difficult to study with quantitative data. In this regard, to better understand how mobility is experienced and can change over the years, interviews and go-along interviews were carried out with a sub-sample of respondent (10 seniors and 24 elderlies) which took part in the quantitative survey. The themes of the interviews included attachment to the neighbourhood, a more in-depth look at the reasoning behind daily activities, a look at mobility practices now and their change over the years, as well as a short questionnaire on health. The use of mixed-method data, in this instance, helped contextualize how individuals of each profile experience mobility in various urban and suburban environments. Despite not being longitudinal, the interviews also helped share some insight on the transitions some individuals experienced, the cause of these transitions and how individuals adapted their mobility to the change. In these interviews can be found many examples of patterns of Déprises that led respondents to reduce their activities. As an example, let’s focus on the case of the Stay-at-home, a profile where the notion of transition appears particularly strong in processes of Déprises which led them to become more homebound by choice or by constraints.

Patterns of Déprises in Mobility Practices: Becoming a Stay-at-home

19From the interviews, we shared in the next section some of the main reasons that led individuals to reduce their activities and becoming more homebound, followed by a closer look on how that new lifestyle is experienced differently among various individuals. In many ways, being in the Stay-at-home profile shows the results of diverse transitions. Filled with complexity, our analysis tries to bring about by deepening these experiences. Indeed, we are not content to compare this profile to others that are more mobile, nor to deepen a confined situation, but rather to understand the layered issues that are superimposed on residential situation.

The Imperative of Health Decline

20One of the most common reasons for slowing down and reducing daily activities comes from health-related issues. The event of diseases, accidents, increased frailty, or body handicap has been cited repeatedly in interviews among individuals of all profiles as a justification for abandoning some activities or reconfigure habits, sometimes temporarily, sometimes in more permanent fashion. This is also true among the Stay-at-home in the sample. Mr. Dubé (80 years old), for instance, experienced a decline in his physical and mental aptitudes in recent years, making his daily travels on foot more demanding. The interview shows him breathing heavily while walking to a pharmacy located 500m away, and having difficulty going on and off the sidewalk, namely when objects or trucks obstruct the way. On the way to the pharmacy, he must cross a six-lane boulevard separated by a buffer zone. This is a tedious process and presents several risks, given that Mr. Dubé crosses slowly and that cars have limited visibility when making a turn. For these reasons, Mr. Dubé is generally accompanied by his wife during his trips and relies on her to drive him when he wants to get out of the home, for instance to go to the grocery store. Over the years, Mr. Dubé grew more homebound and spends his energies taking care of the home, cooking, cleaning or doing light manual work. Living in a single-family home with a garden, he says there is “always something to do”.

21In similar fashion, Mr. Tremblay (82 years old) developed Parkinson’s disease in recent years and, as a result, largely reduced his outings and activities. Living in a suburban area and spending most of his time at home (a single-family house), Mr. Tremblay still drives depending on needs to do the groceries or go to various shops found in commercial centres nearby, although with added precautions to stay safe. He travels outside rush hours and takes secondary roads, to avoid traffic, and knows where he can easily find a parking space near the entrances. While his wife walks regularly to shops, and could drive him if necessary, he insists on staying behind the wheel, seeing it as the last way “he can be useful”. Without the “liberty” of driving, Mr. Tremblay says it would be “the end” for him.

22As shown in these experiences, and by the frequency at health issues are cited even in a sample of generally healthy older adults, there is a probably important part of individuals who becomes Stay-at-home due to health problems and a loss of autonomy. However, the transitions to this more homebound situation remain varied.

The Urban Location’s Determining Effects

23Lifestyles are tied to residential locations, but what happens when the urban environment around the individuals change? Shops that closed or delocalized, banks and atm leaving places to virtual transactions, demographic changes leading to changes in commercial offers, friends or neighbors that move away or disappear over time, these are all reasons cited in interviews for reducing activities and staying more at home which are out of the control of the individual and related to urban changes. The most extreme of these changes, however, could be seen in individuals that changed neighbourhood completely, either by choice or constraints, and as a result lost all their previous habits. Some of these became Stay-at-home. For instance, Mr. Simard and Mr. Bernard (89 years old) both saw their activities largely reduced after moving to a new neighbourhood. Mr. Simard had to move from his apartment in a religious community, located near the city centre, after the building was sold and Mr. Bernard followed his wife’s decision to move apartments after bickering with the neighbors. In both cases, they inhabited new homes located farther from the city downtown in a more suburban area, right next to a major elevated highway passing through Montréal. As a result, both became more homebound, being unable to take care of most necessities on foot and having to rely on car mobility to get to most destinations, due to the barrier caused by the highway. Still able to drive but feeling disinterested in the lack of destinations in his neighbourhood, Mr. Simard decided to focus more on what he calls “intellectual sustenance” by working on his laptop as an organiser for his religious community. Mr. Bernard, not owning a driver’s license and having become frailer over the years can still count on his wife and his daughter who lives in the same building to drive him around and take care of necessities. He says he could possibly walk around to get out, but that there is not anything worth seeing in the neighbourhood. Since his wife is often out of town, Mr. Bernard says he passes the time by playing solitaire on the computer and reading in the afternoon, enjoying that this apartment is more luminous than the previous one. “(…) I can get out if I want. But to go where? To go walking along the road and come back. (…) There’s nothing here, there’s no shops. There are no restaurants. There’s nothing since Saint-Croix up to Rockland, nothing at all” (Mr. Bernard, 89 years old, Edge neighbourhood).

24The cases of Mr. Bernard, Mr. Dubé, and Mr. Simard show a rather extreme demonstration of the impact changes in the residential urban environment can affect the process of déprise. The change to a new residential environment where they did not have any habits or attachment, and which provided additional barriers to spatial mobility was the turning point to a radical change of lifestyles leaving them more homebound and car-dependent. Without being that drastic, environmental changes in residential environments can still affect and speed up the process of déprise when they deprive ageing individuals of resources and opportunity. Interviews showed numerous examples where urban development and transformations removed places of attachment, leaving people the choice of seeking alternatives out of the neighbourhood or abandoning this activity.

Slowing Down Voluntarily

25Not all transitions leading to reduction of activities and more homebound activities are forced, some are chosen. In anticipation of old age, six respondents detailed how they were taking steps to voluntarily slow down their level of activity. As can be gathered from the interviews, this decision represents a conscious choice, as none of these individuals suffered from any functional limitations or seem to have experienced major changes that would force them to reduce their activities. One, a 64-year-old woman in good health, was approaching what she felt was a good age for retirement and increasingly took steps to reduce her workload and social activities. Another, Mrs. Valdez (66 years old), decided to sell her car, which she felt was an unnecessary expense and chose to focus her trips within a radius of proximity. She lives within walking distance of a cluster of commercial centres which allows her to easily take care of all necessities without a car, and she uses public transit whenever she needs to get to the city centre. While this makes travels slightly longer, she says she feels less stressed and can “take the time”. Similarly, others said they just felt the need to slow down and “focus on themselves”, which led to a reduction of activities. A common trait in many of these individuals was a feeling of fatigue toward frequent social interactions, which were said to “drain energy”

26For instance, Mrs. Talbot, a 78-year-old woman, described it as “I’m preparing my immobilism”. Formerly a highly active individual in her neighbourhood, who participated for many years in community associations, and which has according to her “an agenda always full”, Mrs. Talbot said she started slowing down the pace in recent years. Living in an apartment tower, she says she started enjoying solitude more as time goes by, and enjoys doing calmer, indoor activities like reading or playing piano. She said she is doing so since her children all live outside the city and her sister became too sick to get out. She also declared social meetings draw more energy from her than before. Mrs. Talbot is, however, in good health and does not envision abandoning driving. She also bought a stationary bicycle to make sure she could train at home to “keep her strength” in order to keep taking walks along the river near her apartment.

27The example of Mrs. Cyr (93 years old) also helps to understand this logic. She is a widow who now lives in an intergenerational household with her children. While living in a suburban area where walking does not appear possible and public transit is rare, she made the decision to sell her car after driving became increasingly stressful and found she was growing more fearful with age. She said she started driving late in her life, after her husband died and always lacked practice. Growing tired of maintaining her detached house by herself, she invited her daughter and her husband to live upstairs, making herself an apartment in the house basement. Since her children often drive her around or make runs to the grocery store, the arrangement allowed her to eliminate the need for a car, although at the cost of conciliating her wishes to go out with her children unpredictable time schedule (one is a firefighter, her daughter works and cares for children in the evening). She says, however, she always has someone to accompany her if needed, thanks to the presence of her daughter and her husband upstairs, her son in the neighbourhood and friends living in proximity.

28From these examples, we can see the transition to a more homebound lifestyle isn’t necessarily a negative experience, as long as it fits the aspirations of individuals and leaves them with resources for maintaining their mobility. The individuals choosing to slow down voluntarily entered the déprise process in a proactive way and had enough mobility capital to reduce their activities without impacting their autonomy negatively. In many ways, this seems like the optimal way to envision the transition associated with the process of déprise that seems inevitable with ageing. This process takes place in as diverse ways as there are individuals and access to resources and options is highly unequal.

Between now and tomorrow, transitions rooted in unequal spatial and social capital

29From the examples of patterns shown above, it is possible to see how each can be associated with varied experiences for individuals living in different environments, with varied aspirations and with differing social support systems. Some Stay-at-home make a rather positive experience of their situation, while others have a rougher time.

30What can explain the difference? We can start this discussion by pointing out that reducing activities and becoming more homebound was a chosen lifestyle for some and a compensatory measure for others. Individuals like Mrs. Talbot, for instance, decided to slow down voluntarily and are prepared for “immobilism”. She still has her activities and network in a neighbourhood she is attached to, but her interests have changed and turned more toward indoor activities. The same goes for Mrs. Cyr, who chose to abandon her car and become more homebound, but with the security of living with her adult children next door. In contrast, individuals like Mr. Dubé or Mr. Simard did not enjoy the transition, which was forced on them. While appearing resigned during the interview, it was clear in many points in the interview that Mr. Dubé felt frustrated at being a “burden” for his wife and at needing to call hired help for things he used to be able to do alone before. “They are always very kind, very polite and all, but when it’s time to deliver the merchandise… it’s not the same…it’s always better when you do it yourself”. Mr. Simard and Mr. Bernard, for their part, lost all interest in going out following their relocation. This lack of interest comes in part due to the lack of destinations suiting their tastes, but also due to the difficulty of going anywhere without a car. They would therefore need to call relatives or friends to accompany them.

31This latter example brings forth a second point of difference between those enjoying the lifestyle of being a Stay-at-home and those who do not: social networks. As pointed out in the interviews, despite reducing their social activities and becoming more homebound, Mr. Talbot and Mrs. Cyr still enjoy socialising with friends and family, just more at a time and with people of their choosing. It’s different for others like Mr. Simard, Mr. Dubé or Mr. Bernard, which now feel more isolated, in part due to the disappearance of many friends and relatives (mostly due to death) and the effort needed to socialise outside of phone calls with those remaining. At least, Mr. Dubé and Bernard still have their family to socialise, support them and accompany them for transport when needed. Mr. Simard keeps a close association with the religious community he is part of and made some new friends in the apartment building where he is a tenant. However, there were seniors and elders met during this research project that did not have this social network of support around them and felt much more vulnerable. They are not alone. According to Statistics Canada, nearly 30% of Canadian elderlies are at risk of being socially isolated (Stat Can, 2008-2009), which makes these people even more vulnerable to a loss of autonomy should they lose capacities for mobility, which is especially true for those who are Stay-at-home by consequence among them. As expressed namely in Kaufmann (2014), a loss of “social” capital is also a loss of “mobility” capital.

32As seen in this section, the transitions associated to the process of déprise and becoming more homebound are varied. They all conduct individuals to a spatially limited residential situation, without ineluctably confining the persons. In this sense, it’s possible to see how the level of “mobility capital” and spatial mastery defining individuals’ capabilities and access to urban resources can facilitate both the entry and control of a situation otherwise seen as confined. Feeling in control of where and when mobility practices take place, even if these mobility practices are few and take place on a very limited territory, seems to contribute to positive residential satisfaction.

Facilitating Positive Experience of Ageing for Stay-at-home

33The research presents numerous limits. The sample used, on top of being non-probabilistic, is rather small in comparison to the ageing population in the Montréal and Laval regions, which surpasses a hundred thousand. The sample also presents a non-longitudinal view into the lifestyles of ageing individuals gathered from a panel on health research and from community associations. In this regard, despite the use of interviews, the research presents insights into the lives of more urban, socially active and healthy adults than what could be encountered in the general population. These limits must be kept in mind for an informed discussion.

34Despite all these limits, the research does help to gather insights on diverse patterns of transitions ageing individuals can go through in relation to mobility, and what appears to be winning conditions making the difference between positive and negative experiences of mobility adaptation and ageing.

35Living in a residential environment offering diverse options for mobility is certainly one of the most salient configurations. A residential environment that offers many ways for the senior to adapt is crucial. Among the environments explored, denser urban configurations tend to be seen as such. They generally offer more flexibility to do trips by walking or taking public transit. This flexibility is nonetheless also possible in less dense, more suburban environments, although it tends to be more situational. As expressed in Golant’s excellent call to “Stop Bashing the suburbs” (2019), the growing expansion of online shopping, delivery and at-home services, and specialised taxi services for older adults over the years can also provide new options of flexibility for residents of more car-dependent environments. In many ways, ageing in “suburban” areas isn’t inferior or harder than ageing in “urban” areas, it’s different and suited to different lifestyles. Furthermore, despite not having space to cover it in detail in this article, it’s important to note that these “suburban” environments can be as diverse in their urban form and the opportunities they give to mobility as “urban” areas, and as such needs to be studied with a differential approach rather than thought of as a homogeneous block.

36Not completely detached from the shape of the built environment, a support network, or even more generally, an accessible and kin network, could be a second favourable configuration. While not a new or groundbreaking revelation in any way, the combination of proximity, accessibility, and availability of a supportive family or friendly network willing to help with daily trips can help extend or maintain mobility among older adults. In this regard, it is notable that numerous respondents actively took steps to ensure they could live in proximity to their family, namely by deciding to transform their home into intergenerational habitat. Other younger respondents that moved to Montréal also mentioned how one of their aspirations is to eventually live in proximity to their friends in the metropolitan region and support each other as a community in old age.

37A third point on the configurations of the elder-environment relationship seems to be a matter of trajectories, or about the aspirations toward mobility. As shown in the interviews and go-along, the importance of maintaining projects and aspirations over the course of later life, despite difficulties, also appeared to play a significant role in the ability of older adults to re-engage in various activities following turning point events. The importance of still “feeling useful”, for instance, appears to be a great motivator for older adults to maintain their capacity to drive despite difficulties or to keep participating in associations following a health decline. As such, offering ways for older adults to still feel useful through a variety of activities or at least psychological help for older adults undergoing trauma making them doubt about their worth, might help these adults to overcome these difficulties instead of “waiting for the end”. In this respect and returning to the fundamentals of approaches in environmental gerontology with Lawton and Nahemow (1973), the stimulation in the physical and symbolic sense of the residential environment stands out as a particularly prominent issue. The ability to make choices and the mastery of environmental experiences are fundamental here, as research is increasingly explicitly theorising (e.g. Golant, 2015, 2019; Clément et al., 2018). The mixed contextual differentiation of residential environments, lifecycles and individual pathways has been well demonstrated in our observations.


38In view of the results of the research, we would like to conclude on a few avenues which could be explored to facilitate the experience of adapting daily travel among Stay-at-home, as well as other profiles of ageing individuals living in different types of residential environments. As expressed in this article, staying at home when ageing can be a voluntary choice or be forced upon someone. For policymakers and urban researchers, this point underlines the diversity seen in older age, and highlights the difficulty of policymaking in relation to ageing individual's situation – demands and needs can be diametrically opposed among people sharing the same lifestyle and mobility practices. Furthermore, it’s also important to recall that a loss of mobility capabilities, social network or change in the residential environment can easily transform a voluntary choice to be Stay-at-home into a forced one if it impacts the mobility capital of the individual.

39The preferred option, of course, would be to focus on preventive measures preventing individuals from becoming Stay-at-home by constraint in the first place. At the micrographic level, the interviews showed the importance of ensuring the accessibility of diverse travelling options, especially active transit options. These could integrate well into the continuing efforts to make active travel in the city safer, notably through the implementation of measures to make intersections safer, especially at the intersections of major boulevards and commercial arteries (lengthening the crossing time for the elderly, improving signage and pavement markings), the continued development of the pedestrian and bicycle network and the maintenance of infrastructure (roads, sidewalks). However, as the interviews have shown, some people (to a certain extent) like to challenge their abilities by taking obstacles such as stairs and slopes in order to maintain their physical fitness. In doing so, without denying the need to continue to work towards making the city universally accessible, consideration could be given to providing more options for users who would like to challenge themselves and get some physical exercise. Elements like the installations exercise equipment through the city (as often seen in Asian countries) could be envisioned, as well as investing in blue-green infrastructure that offers opportunities to be active, like parks, woodlands trails, community gardens and such. Besides older adults wishing to maintain their physical condition, such measures have also proven benefits for physical and mental health among younger individuals as well (Annear et al., 2012; Kent & Thompson, 2014).

40Another approach, based on the aspirations of seniors' driving profiles, would be to think about transportation alternatives that do not necessarily involve public transit or active transportation for seniors, but rather solutions that promote carpooling, car sharing or even the implementation of ride-hailing services specifically dedicated to seniors. In the last few years, it is possible to see that many drive-home services and community cabs have been set up to serve senior populations, with the possibility of helping other seniors in their need to travel. It would be a good idea to encourage the implementation of these services and to improve them in order to eventually serve the entire territory of the metropolitan area.

41Other promising measures could be to facilitate intergenerational housing, a frequent request of the respondents met in the interviews, in order to facilitate the proximity of housing for ageing individuals with members of their family or with younger workers or students. Associations that create matches between students and seniors, where students can take advantage of lower rents in exchange for mobility or home assistance, could be an encouraging avenue. Finally, given the development of options associated with home ordering and online services, it seems important to continue efforts to facilitate computer training for seniors and less privileged populations to reduce the digital divide in the population and facilitate safe use of the Internet.

42In the end, the approach and the results of the research show that the diversity of lifestyles and habitats among ageing populations requires planning solutions that are more focused on adding differentiated options rather than applying wall-to-wall solutions. These options include the facilitation of autonomous mobility adaptation using different means of transportation, but also the addition of housing formulas that facilitate the settlement of seniors in different residential environments, especially for ageing individuals with modest income. Such a reflection should include an interdisciplinary look at concepts such as lifestyles, mobility, adaptation and the various scales associated with relationships to the territory.

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1 This means that the ellipsis size varies not only according to the distance of activities from one another, but also according to the frequency at which individuals do them. Locations rarely visited (a few times a year) or occasionally (once a month) have less impact on the ellipsis size than locations visited weekly or daily.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1: Distribution of respondents in the Montréal and Laval regions (M. Després)
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Title Figure 2: Example of an action-space representation
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Title Table 1: Indicators of mobility practices used in analysis
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Title Figure 3: Classification of seniors and elders’ profiles according to their mobility practices
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Electronic reference

Michel Després, Becoming homebound by choice and constraint: a mixed-methods look into ageing and mobility transitionsArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 23 | 2023, Online since 15 April 2023, connection on 27 May 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Michel Després

Michel Després is a sociologist with a PhD in planning. He is a consultant in land use planning, transportation and sustainable mobility at the Communauté métropolitaine de Québec. E-Mail:

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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