Journal of Rural Community Psychology               Volume E6   Number 1   Spring 2003


Growing old in rural communities:

A visual methodology for studying place attachment


James J. Ponzetti, Jr.


The meaning particular places hold for those who inhabit these familiar spaces are important for understanding the choices and decisions people make during their lives.  The places people live often acquire special emotional significance.  Quotidian interaction that occurs in these settings creates attachment to place.  The phenomenon of place attachment is a common one because human beings exist in particular spatial settings.  Place attachment refers to the emotional connection formed by an individual to a physical location due to the meaning given to the site as a function of its role as a setting for experience.  A range of thoughts, beliefs, attitudes and behavior as well as feelings are evoked through attachment to place.  Thus, place attachment involves an elaborate interplay of emotion, cognition, and behavior in reference to place.


The concept of place attachment


The concept of place attachment is complex and multifaceted.  Scholars from diverse backgrounds such as family studies, psychology, geography, social ecology, and gerontology have proposed various frameworks for understanding the phenomenon (Low & Altman, 1992).


Milligan (1998) articulated an interactionist theory of place attachment.  Beginning with the premise that all interaction is spatially located, place attachment was considered to occur when a particular interaction was accompanied by significant meaning.  Two interdependent components for understanding the feelings a person experienced that binds them to a specific geographic location were proposed:  the interactional past and the interactional potential of the place.  Interactional past refers to the past experiences or memories associated with the place.  The second component, interactional potential, is defined as the imagined or anticipated future experiences or expectations associated with the site.


The special significance of place attachment for the elderly was highlighted by Rubinstein and Parmelee (1992).  The connection between attachment to place and the unique developmental tasks that accompany the aging process such as maintaining a meaningful identity in light of age-related changes, protecting the self against deleterious adjustments due to later life, and maintaining a sense of continuity was emphasized.  An integrative model composed of three essential constructs was suggested for understanding place attachment  in terms of the interrelationships among these constructs.  The first construct focused on identity or the sense of who one is in the world.  Interdependence or the way in which the individual is integrated within the social environment was the second construct.  The third construct, geographic behaviors, represented the physical space or world of the person.


Recently, Gustafson (2001) reviewed past theoretical and empirical research in order to integrate the multiple perspectives of place into a coherent framework.  Three broad themes of self, others, and environment  were identified for understanding the various meanings of place.  This integrative framework provided a useful way of conceptualizing the role of space and place for people in the multitude of environments they live.


Rural elderly and aging in place


Rural towns often have a distinct culture that is based on strong community ties, long history, and ethnic or cultural connections.  Koff (1992) further described some of the unique aspects of rural communities, particularly the outflow of resources and people.  This outflow of resources and people presents obvious challenges for residents who choose to remain in rural communities.  The elderly, in particular, are impacted by this situation because they comprise a greater proportion of the population in rural communities (Coward & Lee, 1985; Krout & Coward, 1998).


Older people tend to age in place; that is, stay in their current living environment as long as possible rather than relocate (Klein, 1994; Mutschler, 1992).   Rural elderly experience a particular problem in regard to aging in place because the provision of services in small remote towns is often inadequate (Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, 1994; Koff, 1992; Krout, 1988).


Over the past few years, rural elderly have received increasing research attention (Coward & Krout, 1998).  The difficulties of later life and of residing in sparsely populated and geographically remote areas are challenging (Chalmers & Joseph, 1998; Joseph & Martin-Matthews, 1993).  Yet, many elders decide to stay in rural towns nonetheless.  It seems reasonable to assume that rural elderly may secure a source of identity, refuge, and comfort through attachment to place, and thus wish to age in place.  The work of Rowles, and Norris-Baker and Scheidt has been instrumental in promoting the importance of place attachment for rural elderly aging in place

Rowles’ (1983, 1990, 1994) extensive work on the role of place attachment among rural elderly is especially insightful.  He used the concept of insideness to describe three dimensions of place attachment in old age.  Familiarity with the physical environment that results from inhabiting a location for an extended period defined the first dimension of “physical insideness.”  This sense of physical insideness can compensate for progressive sensory decrements and enable older residents to continue to traverse spaces that would appear to be beyond their level of physiological competence.  The second dimension was “social insideness.”  People, by virtue of living in a place for long periods of time, become a part of the social fabric of the community. As a part of the social community, residents earn what Rowles referred to as social credit that they can draw on in the form of support and assistance from other community residents (e.g. neighbors or friends) if they require assistance.  Finally, a “psychological or autobiographical insideness” extended beyond the physical setting or social milieu to create an environment that has "a temporal depth of meaning."  In other words, residents develop over a lifetime of residence a sense of place in a present as well as an historical sense. Their community becomes a mosaic of "remembered places of which the drab contemporary setting is but a remnant" (Rowles, 1983, p.303).


In their studies of elderly living in rural Kansas, Norris-Baker and Scheidt (1994) noted four salient categories for explaining place attachment.  These categories were attachment to home, attachment to community, legacy of home place, and attachment to the land. 

The purpose of this study was to investigate what older residents of small rural towns saw as meaningful and thus influential in their decision to remain in these towns (i.e. age in place). The study was designed to explore the phenomenon of place attachment among rural elderly through a unique research strategy.  The research strategy involved securing visual as well as verbal information from participants by asking them to take pictures of the people, places, and things in their communities that were particularly meaningful to them.  Detailed investigation of place attachment as revealed by the photographs older rural residents took can provide insights into their desire to age in place.  This visual methodology supplements extant research that is primarily based on positivist techniques (Harper, 1987).


As every photograph contains details not found through written or verbal means, it becomes an important source for information unattainable otherwise.  Yet, a paucity of research in which photography has been used as a method of data collection exists.  The few studies that were identified focused on adolescents rather than adults (Hanna & Jacobs, 1993; Williams, 1987).  Accordingly, a second purpose of the study was to investigate the use of photography as a means of collecting information from older adults.






A total of 32 elderly residents of small rural towns participated in this study.  They lived in one of seven rural towns in west central Illinois and were identified through a modified snowball sampling technique. These towns were identified because each was remote (i.e., at least 20 miles from a city), had a stable population of elderly residents, and a stable or decreasing general population from the 1980 to 1990 census.  The towns were divided into two size categories.  Seventeen older adults were  from very small communities (100-600 population) which will be referred to as villages, and 15 resided in small communities (601-1200 population) called towns.  Participation in the study was voluntary.


Ten of the respondents were  men and 22 women.  The mean age of the sample was 69.5 years (range 52-89).  Eighty-five per cent of the sample had completed 12 years or more of formal education. Sixty-nine percent were not employed.  The average annual income was $19,200. Participants reported having lived in these rural towns for 37.5 years on average. Most (97%) resided in a single family house with their spouse (69%), 41% with their husbands and 28% with their wives.  The participants reported an average of 3.8 children, 6.9 grandchildren, and 2.2 great-grandchildren.




An exploratory inductive research strategy based on a phenomenological approach was selected to understand the lived experience of people growing old in rural towns.  Descriptions of meaningful phenomena were collected via photographs and in-depth interviews with elderly residents of small rural communities. Qualitative gerontology has espoused the utility of such an approach to discover and understand older people’s behaviors, meanings, and values through empirically and theoretically grounded descriptions of everyday experiences (Reinharz & Rowles, 1988; Rowles, 1984). 


Phenomenology is the critical and descriptive study of the meanings which people attribute to their everyday experience, including experiences of place.  The value of phenomenological approaches to the study of aging and place attachment have been recognized (Low & Altman, 1992).  This study extended this approach to the medium of photography.  Certain advantages were inherent in the use of photography as opposed to verbal self-reports.  The most significant, perhaps, was that the camera documents the participant’s perceptions with a minimum of training and intrusion by the researcher or social expectations. 


Participants were provided cameras and given the following instructions: "Please take pictures of the people, places, and things that are particularly memorable or special to you and thus provide you with reasons for living in this community.”  They were given two weeks to take their pictures, then the cameras were picked up and the film developed.  This methodology did not restrict participants in terms of spatial range (Hidalgo & Hernandez, 2001).


After the film was developed, a follow-up interview was scheduled with participants to review their photographs. The interviews took approximately one hour and were conducted by the researcher either in the participant’s home or some other convenient locale identified by the participant (e.g. senior center).


The interviews had a semi-structured format, using the photographs for discussions about what each picture meant to the participant.  Participants were asked to complete a brief questionnaire which included questions about whether they felt at home in their community, their general attachment to the community as assessed by their feelings if they had to move (Hidalgo & Hernandez, 2001), their local social involvements with friends, relatives, and social organizations, and their satisfaction with life in general (Wood, Wylie, & Shaefor, 1969). Finally, participants were asked about their use and approximate distances to fifteen community services as identified by Windley (1983) and for pertinent demographic information.


During the analysis, a number of underlying themes were derived from the analysis of the photographs and interview responses.   The photographs were reviewed and categorized by a graduate student unfamiliar with the purpose of the research project.  Initially, the coding was highly descriptive and the codes were often labeled with words used by the respondents to describe what places meant to them.  These descriptive codes were gradually converted into broader categories.  For example, ‘parks’ and ‘nature’ were categorized under ‘attachment to the land.’  As this process of abstraction proceeded, a limited number of even more general themes emerged.




Virtually all participants (94%) reported they definitely felt at “home” in their community.  The participants were very attached to their towns as evidenced by the 88% who noted they were very interested in knowing what was going on in the community and 88% who would be very sorry or sorry if they had to move away from their town.  They were well integrated in their communities.  Eighty-one percent reported that at least half of their friends lived in their town; whereas, the same percentage said that half (28%) or less than half (53%) of their family/relatives live in town.  They were active in several social organizations as well with 25% reporting that they belonged to three, 19% to four, and 13% to two organizations.


In response to why participants chose to live in a small rural town, 60% reported because the town was “home”, family, or the peace and quiet it offered.  A follow-up question asking what participants thought made their town special noted similar findings in that 48% said family, the sense of community, or the peace and quiet it offered.  The vast majority were satisfied with their residence (97%), neighborhood (91%), and community (97%).


Participants were very satisfied with their lives (mean= 21.4, range 11-26).  No sex differences (t= 0.33, n.s.) were found on life satisfaction.  There were no significant differences for community size (t=  -0.15, n.s.) in life satisfaction. 


Table 1 shows estimated distances in miles to the nearest of fifteen services often used by the elderly.  In general, residents of villages had to go further for all services but only the nutrition site, doctor, beautician/barber, and senior center were significant. 


Table 1:  Mean perceived distance in miles to nearest service by town size category


Town services           100-600         601-1200              t            

grocery store               14.6                  9.9                   1.2

pharmacy                    19.4                13.9                   1.7

bank                             3.4                  1.4                   1.0

post office                     0.3                  1.0                 -1.1

café/restaurant              4.5                  0.6                   1.7

beautician/barber          7.9                  1.3                   2.8**

church                          2.5                  3.1                 -0.2

doctor                        18.8                  7.6                   3.0**

clinic/hospital              21.4                18.4                   1.0

senior center                 6.3                   1.6                   2.1*

nutrition site                  6.5                   1.4                   3.3**                                    

tavern/bar                     5.4                   2.9                   1.3

library                           7.0                   3.0                   1.7

park                             6.3                   3.2                   1.0

mental health facility    21.5                 18.2                   1.5


* p<.05, ** p<.01


Table 2 shows mean use of services by community size.  The only significant difference found was older residents of towns used the nutrition site more often than those of villages. Participants were also asked to indicate which mode of travel they used in getting to community services.  Over half (60%) of the sample reported driving themselves to services.


Table 2:  Mean use frequency of town services by town size category


Town services           100-600         601-1200                  t          

grocery store                 6.1                  5.6                     1.3

pharmacy                      3.8                  3.5                     0.6

bank                             5.5                  5.1                     1.1

post office                     7.7                  7.8                    -0.4

café/restaurant               5.4                  5.2                     0.2

beautician/barber           4.0                  3.7                     0.5

church                           4.9                  5.5                    -0.9

doctor                           2.6                  2.5                     0.4

clinic/hospital                 1.9                  1.9                     0.0

senior center                  3.0                  3.7                    -0.7

nutrition site                   1.0                  4.6                    -5.0*

tavern/bar                      1.6                  1.3                      0.5

library                            2.6                  3.7                    -1.3

park                              2.5                  3.2                    -1.0

mental health facility       1.0                  1.0                   ----**



Note: Frequency code: (1) = never, (2) = 3 times a year or less, (3) = 4 to 10 times a year, (4) = once a month, (5) = 2 to 3 times a month, (6) = once a week, (7) = 2 to 4 times a week, (8) = 5 times a week or more.

* p< .001

** cannot compute t because S.D. of both groups is zero




Participants took an average of 23 photographs.  Five key themes were identified in the photographs based on the information participants provided during interviews.  The themes were attachment to family and friends, attachment to community, attachment to history, attachment to town services, and attachment to the land.   The mean number of photographs by theme was 3.7 for family and friends, 5.0 for community, 5.5 for history, 6.2 for town services, and 7.6 for land.


Given the centrality of the photographs to this study, greater description of each theme with typical examples is presented.  The theme of attachment to family and friends included most of the photographs of people because few pictures were taken of people who were not considered family or friends.  Figure 1 provides a typical example of this theme.  The participant described this photograph of her brother and nephew planting beans on the farm that had been in the family for more than a century.  This photograph was coded under three themes; namely, attachment to family and friends, attachment to the land, and attachment to history.


Figure 1



The theme of attachment to community focused on interaction in a social or community context.  It included either locations that were viewed as congregation sites; that is places residents gathered to interact (e.g., post office or churches), or activities that involved working together with and for the community (e.g., volunteering at the senior center).  Figure 2 is a photograph of the local post office.  It was very common for the post office to be included in a participant’s photographs because it was a primary meeting place in that all town residents had to go there to pick up their mail.  Participants often voiced their expectation of socializing with others as a part of collecting their mail.  This photograph was coded as attachment to community and attachment to town services.


Figure 2



The attachment to history or personal roots theme incorporated photographs of historical sites, cultural institutions, or cemeteries in the town.  In addition, photographs of current or past homes, or pictures with references to “the way things used to be...” were included in this category.  Figure 3 is a photograph of a participant’s home.  He informed the interviewer that his house was built in 1857 and was a Baptist church before his family purchased it.  It was common for participants to take a picture of their home, but the pictures rarely, as is the case in this example, had people in them.  This photograph was coded as attachment to history.


Figure 3



Pictures of a school, library, fire station, physician’s office and other retail services composed the theme of attachment to town services.  Participants who took photographs in this category exuded a sense of pride about the availability of these services in their town.  Figure 4 is a photograph of a local school.  For many of the rural communities, the presence of a school was viewed as critical to the future viability of the town because  without a school  few families with young children would reside or move to the community.  Another example was the water tower in figure 5.  The participant explained the significance of this photograph in noting how his town had the “best and most economical water in the state.”  He also shared the fact that he was the commissioner for the local water district.


Figure 4




Figure 5



The theme of attachment to the land included photographs of peaceful, serene scenery that participants found particularly meaningful.  The family farm in figure 1 was coded as attachment to the land.  Figure 6 provides another example of a park.  The participant who took this photograph also mentioned that in addition to the park itself, he wanted to show the bandstand that he built with his friend Joe.  Accordingly, this photograph was also coded for attachment to family and friends.


Figure 6



Participants could offer multiple meanings for a given photograph such that a photograph may represent more than one theme.  An example is provided in figure 7 which is a photograph of a church and cemetery.  The participant mentioned the importance of the church as a gathering place to meet and converse with other church members, and the cemetery as a resting place for some of her deceased family members.  This picture was coded as attachment to community and attachment to history. 


Figure 7



Figure 8 offers another example of a participant’s daughter, granddaughter, and friend in front of the bank in which they all worked.  The participant recognized the bank as providing important financial services for her as well as a place to interact with others in the town including the family and friends she pictured here.  This photograph was coded as attachment to family and friends, attachment to community, and attachment to town services.


Figure 8



No sex differences were found between response themes; that is, men were as likely as women to take photographs in a particular category.  However, residents of villages took significantly more photographs reflecting the theme of attachment to history or the past.




The pictorial information collected was particularly useful for understanding the meaning of place attachment and the desire to age in place among rural elderly.  The comparison of the five themes derived from the photographs taken by rural seniors in this study provided support for the previous work on place attachment in rural contexts.  The parallels with Norris-Baker and Scheidt’s (1994) research were particularly compelling given the different methodologies used.  In addition, the results of this study provide further evidence of the utility of the three constructs (i.e., self-others-environment) articulated in Gustafson’s (2001) integrative framework for place attachment research.


Attachment to the land was particularly evident in participants’ descriptions of their pictures.  Participants took twice as many photos of the land than people.  This finding made sense given the agrarian environment.


The fact that the fewest pictures were categorized in the attachment to family and friends theme was unexpected.  However, after asking participants to explain the significance of their photographs, it became clear that pictures in the other theme categories implied attachment to family or friends for the participants.  For example, particular places in the community (e.g. the post office) or town services (e.g. senior centre), and photographs connected to the past (e.g. previous homes or cemeteries), or those of the land (e.g. family farms) were often reminders to the elderly participants of important people, both living and deceased, in their lives.  The physical environment appeared to remind respondents of social relations but social relations rarely reminded them of physical space.

The findings of the present study did not replicate previous research by Windley (1983) that noted significant differences between older residents of varying size communities on a number of perceptual variables.  On the contrary, the elderly in this study who resided in two different size rural communities were remarkably similar.  Both groups reported a high degree of life satisfaction and sense of attachment to their communities.  Differential access to a range of services was minimal.  This discrepancy may be due to the inclusion of larger communities by Windley.  Other that the finding that village residents took more pictures related to history or the past, no difference were noted in reference to the photographs.


This study explored the utility of photography in understanding place attachment.  Extensions of the approach were readily suggested such as (1) extending the use of a visual methodology to different age groups, (2) comparing the meaning of place for urban as well as rural residents; and (3) exploring the environment of persons who are volitionally living where they wish versus those who are not.




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Author's Note:


This study was supported by a grant from the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, Western Illinois University, Macomb, Illinois.  Parts of this research were presented at the National Council on Family Relations conference in November, 1998 and at the Western Social Science Association conference in June, 2002.


Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to James J. Ponzetti, Jr., School of Social Work and Family Studies, 2080 West Mall, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., V6T 1Z2, e-mail: