Chris Hatton: The foundations on which to build a real home

Having a good life requires having a place you feel is truly home. While research has found three common themes underpinning this, what fulfils these can change over time.

What makes a house a home? How might this change through your life? Several research projects are asking people with learning disabilities these questions.

While the emerging picture won’t be a surprise, it adds up to a profound challenge to the business as usual approach of many housing, commissioning and provider organisations.

The Flourishing Lives project at Manchester Metropolitan University has been asking deep questions about what makes a good life for people. Three things come out as crucial: feeling you belong; having the confidence to live the life you want; and thinking ahead to shape your future. Home is the foundation of all of these.

Do you want to live alone? With your partner? With friends you get on with?

Who you live with strongly matters to people’s sense of belonging in their home, and can make home a haven and a joy, according to work by many projects, including 200 LivesFeeling at Home, and Growing Older – Planning Ahead, all of which are funded by the National Institute for Health Research.

But for many housed in groups, living with others they don’t get on with can make home a place of stress, isolation and unhappiness.

Truly making your home your own is also vital – decorating, furniture, pictures, having places for your stuff. Even when sharing with others, people value having spaces in the house or garden that are theirs beyond their bedroom.

People consistently say that where they live really matters to a sense of belonging. Are the neighbours nice? Does the area feel safe and familiar? Is it easy to get to the shops, meet up with friends, get a bus, get to your job, or see your family?

Close to others – for good or ill

People in residential care were more insulated from their neighbourhoods, the 200 Lives project found. For those in supported living, there was a “thinner skin” between people and their local neighbourhoods, for good or ill, depending on where these residents were living.

All the research projects found that having or lacking a sense of belonging at home could bolster or crush confidence. Support from family, shared lives carers or support workers matters as well as that from partners and friends.

Home can be a place where people really know you while not assuming you only want to do the same things forever.

Home can be a place where you can be spontaneous while making sure the chores are (more or less) done. Home can be the place you love to come to after work, where you entertain and where you get ready for a night out.

However, for many people, their home was a place where routines ruled and life was pretty empty.

Finally, people talked about the importance of thinking ahead. Many were stuck in a perpetual present – once someone had been placed, that was it, with no thought that a person might change over time.

Truly making your home your own is vital. Even when sharing, people value having spaces in a house or garden beyond their bedroom that are theirs.

While people wanted to feel a sense of security, many also wanted to think about moving house in the future if things changed.

Many had little real choice in where they lived and who they lived with and, for many, their house moves were reactive (in response to having a bad time elsewhere) rather than proactive.

Planning for a house move or for moving out of the family home felt needlessly complicated, and required consistent support over long periods of time, which is rarely present.

All these things are vital to people wanting to move out of inpatient units into their own home.

While moving can be complicated, careful planning with people to find a place they want to live, while building confidence and a sense of belonging and a future, are still fundamental.

People with learning disabilities are giving consistent messages about what makes a house a home, and how a good home makes for a good life, with great ideas for how to make this happen.