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Research article on Lifespace by Dr Jacki Liddle

How big is your lifespace? How might it reflect and affect health, wellbeing and participation.

By Dr Jacki Liddle, University of Queensland

Many things may affect your ability to move from place to place – and be actively involved in your community, nation and the world! We have certainly seen this over the last 2 years. There is a body of research that focuses on monitoring people’s mobility in their community, the reasons for constrictions and the outcomes related to this.

What is lifespace?

Coming out of 1970s gerontology (the study of ageing), lifespace is a concept that describes the geographic area in which we live and conduct our activities. Originally this was conceptualised as circles, surrounding a person, extending from their bedroom, into other rooms, then outside, into the community and further afield. Since then it has been converted to scores, questionnaires and maps. Basically, it measures how often you leave home (or a room), how far you go, and your patterns of travel. People might be asked to recall, keep diaries, or more recently, carry a phone or GPS device.

(From Liddle et al 2016, showing a participant’s lifespace as a heatmap from GPS information. Please note the location has been changed)

What does lifespace reflect?

Being able to be mobile in your community relies on a number of things working well.

At the person level, your body functioning affects mobility –

  • being able to perceive and interact with your environment,
  • being able to mobilise and coordinate your body parts (without too much pain),
  • and being able to plan, and organise travel,
  • feel motivated and have energy
  • and respond to things as you move

– all affect mobility (along with many more things). But there is more to it than that.

Your community mobility is strongly affected by your environment – this includes things like a home where you can access outside, suitable walking paths (terrain, surfaces, handrails), accessible transportation, weather and conditions (temperature, storms, pollution levels). Environments also can support mobility through signage, appropriate lighting levels and supports for finding your way, places for resting out of the weather, and an overall feeling of being safe. Beyond the physical environment – mobility is shaped by the social environment and infrastructure – social supports, funding for services and transport, and suitable meaningful destinations. People also often need a reason to be mobile – why you are going, what you are doing, who you are with.

So a restriction in lifespace may reflect a change or mismatch between the person and their environment. It may be temporary (like having a broken leg, having a lockdown, or experiencing extreme weather), or it may be more permanent. Changes to body functioning, may require rehabilitation, changes to the environment and supports or both. Changes to usual patterns of community mobility (e.g. retiring from driving) may need specific supports and adjustment to protect lifespace.

What is the impact of restricted lifespace?

Everyone has their own preferred patterns of lifespace – so there is not one optimal amount. However, large population-based studies have indicated that maintaining lifespace (or recovering it after a constriction) may have an impact on future health, cognition, wellbeing and participation, as well as access to essential services, like healthcare. We do need to understand a lot more things about lifespace – but it does seem to both both reflect and affect health and wellbeing. For this reason, it might be helpful to keep track of your lifespace, and anything that might be a barrier to you maintaining it.

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References*

Baker, P. S., Bodner, E. V., & Allman, R. M. (2003). Measuring life‐space mobility in community‐dwelling older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society51(11), 1610-1614.

De Silva, N. A., Gregory, M. A., Venkateshan, S. S., Verschoor, C. P., & Kuspinar, A. (2019). Examining the association between life-space mobility and cognitive function in older adults: a systematic review. Journal of aging research2019.

James, B. D., Boyle, P. A., Buchman, A. S., Barnes, L. L., & Bennett, D. A. (2011). Life space and risk of Alzheimer disease, mild cognitive impairment, and cognitive decline in old age. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 19(11), 961–969.  https://doi.org/10.1097/JGP.0b013e318211c219.

Liddle, J., Ireland, D., McBride, S. J., Brauer, S. G., Hall, L. M., Ding, H., … & Chenery, H. J. (2014). Measuring the lifespace of people with Parkinson’s disease using smartphones: proof of principle. JMIR mHealth and uHealth2(1), e2799. https://mhealth.jmir.org/2014/1/e13

Liddle, Jacki; Ireland, David; Harrison, Fleur; Gustafsson, Louise; Brauer, Sandy; Lamont, Robyn; Scott, Theresa; Pachana, Nancy; Sachdev, Perminder; Brodaty, Henry. Measuring the importance of getting out and about. Australian Journal of Dementia Care. 2016; 5(5):54-56.

Liddle, J., Ireland, D., Krysinska, K., Harrison, F., Lamont, R., Karunanithi, M., … & Brodaty, H. (2021). Lifespace metrics of older adults with mild cognitive impairment and dementia recorded via geolocation data. Australasian Journal on Ageing.

* if you would like to access the references, please contact the author here.