The significant demographic shift, which sees the number and proportion of elderly citizens steadily increasing in many countries around the world, has far-reaching implications.
As people live longer and birth rates decline, we need to understand what that will mean for everything from labour markets and economic prospects to social welfare and healthcare systems.
One thing, though, is already clear: with population ageing now a global phenomenon, governments and local communities must act fast to address the challenges and plan for the inevitabilities of further change.
That was the main theme of the latest in Lingnan University’s Cities and Governance Webinar Series 2022/23, which is co-organised by the School of Graduate Studies and the Institute of Policy Studies.
The overall aim of the series is to hear from experts about pressing issues which are reshaping society. And for the event on March 21, Dr Carmen Ng, General Manager (Elderly Services) for the Hong Kong Housing Society (HKHS), spoke about the steps taken to co-create an ageing-in-place ecosystem that allows the elderly to continue to have an active, purposeful and healthy life during their golden years.
The work of the HKHS is guided by vision which has long sought to provide senior citizens with a home that is “more than a living space”. Therefore, each housing project is carefully and comprehensively designed to offer holistic support for residents in terms of home safety, social contacts, and easy access to health care personnel and facilities.
Beyond that, though, the society is also assisting other age-in-place initiatives in the wider community through public education schemes which explain the possibilities and practicalities involved. And the Age-Friendly Home Living Lab has been established as a platform to transform innovative concepts into solutions which have a positive impact in real-life situations.
Noting that, in 2021, both men and women in Hong Kong led the world in life expectancy, at 83 years and 87.7 years respectively, Ng also highlighted the fact of baby boomers entering old age in the coming decade or so.
“We are looking at more than one-third of the population reaching 65 years old or above by 2040,” she said, adding that local research reflects that nearly 90 per cent of the elderly prefer living in the community and 75 per cent prefer living at home even when their health deteriorates. “So, we are dedicated to constantly identifying and exploring possible housing options, such as inter-generational living, to keep pace with the evolving needs of the population.”
Accordingly, the HKHS already has age-in-place schemes for residents in different income brackets, including tenants of public rental estates, as well as middle-to-high income retirees.
Underpinning this is a social capital model based on three main objectives. It aims to empower individuals and support tenants and their families in making positive changes. But, importantly, it also looks to connect people with similar backgrounds through neighbourhood mutual support networks which enhance the sense of belonging.
“We also encourage cross-sectoral collaboration, which helps to create bridging social capital with different stakeholders in the community,” Ng said.
The empowerment indicated in the model comes via home modifications, adaptable layout design, and case management. The latter element involves social workers visiting the various estates to identify needs and then calling in either an occupational therapist or a district volunteer to assess any home safety risks.
“Modification works are carried out by our maintenance team,” said Ng, who developed new service models to meet changing needs of the elderly in her previous role as chief operating officer of the Senior Citizen Home Safety Association. “For example, we install handrails if necessary and raise sockets to facilitate wheelchair users.”
In addition, the adaptable layout design allows tenants to modify their apartment in line with their level of mobility or if they become more frail.
“Active ageing is the key to enabling individual elderly people to age in place,” Ng said. “So, we organise various groups and activities to keep their social circle alive and nurture trust and support.”
Popular activities include music and singing, dance, arts and handicrafts, gardening, and lessons in using social media to stay in touch with family.
“And at our Jat Ming Chuen estate, we have created spaces to enable contact between different generations with areas for newly emerging sports, a walking track, and a toy bank,” Ng said. “All of these bring people together and help them to mingle.”