In our first two articles we considered the wealth of untapped resources that the new generation of older people represents for business. In this final article we look at the ability of older people to look after their own needs and offer mutual support. We also set out some concluding thoughts on new directions for policy.
Community engagement can empower both seniors and local communities
As elderly services and medical technology get more advanced and complex, turning to experts and professionals to handle ever more aspects of elderly issues has been the norm. We do not want to deny the important role of specialists – medical treatments and therapies are important for rehabilitation and restoration of normal health and functionality – but for most elderly there is a much greater need. What they want is companionship; someone to talk to, someone who will care for them and whom they can care for. Being part of a community with social support is fundamental for the elderly to live healthy, active lives. An empowering social life enables senior citizens to establish meaning and a purposeful life.
A Japanese model of small-community-based elderly centers for delivering multiple elderly services offers a good example of effective community engagement. These small centers typically cater for less than 50 senior citizens only. Staff and elderly service users build a community together, rather than the elderly simply receiving designated services from staff. They get to know each other well and enjoy a close and supportive network of relationships. Neighborhood volunteers can walk in and join various programs or help in routine tasks. Many centers also join hands with kindergartens so that young children get the chance to mingle with senior citizens. Open coffee bars are established to welcome neighborhood pedestrians. Senior citizens, just like you and me, just want a normal life, not a service from experts and specialists, unless a particular need arises.
In Beijing, an elderly center offers a small subsidy scheme to selected self-organized elderly groups to provide services for the center. This can encourage senior citizens to form their own active social circles. Each group will get 500 yuan as yearly subsidy to cover their administrative expenses. The response is exceptional. Various social groups including dancing, singing, Taichi, chess, and hiking groups, reading clubs and a bird watching society have been formed to take advantage of the subsidy scheme.
For the center, they save a lot of costs in staff recruitment, running programs for the elderly, and administrating these programs. This alternative approach in empowering interest groups can benefit the elderly with a variety of social activities. This small budget allocated to the subsidy scheme manages to mobilize elderly leaders to serve the elderly-in-need in order to maintain their active life style.
The above examples illustrate the importance of community engagement. While medical and social care professionals may help us understand more about ageing and find innovative evidence-based solutions to tackle ageing related social problems, we need good practice to ensure that the elderly are enabled and supported in providing care for each other in their own communities. This will increase the satisfaction that the elderly may find in the city and contain demand on provision of public services.
Hong Kong’s elderly care policy needs to look beyond narrowing the welfare gap. A holistic approach to our ageing society is urgently needed. A key component of this should be developing a strategy to stimulate the silver economy.
Through businesses that address the diverse social needs of the elderly, part of the accumulated wealth of the older generation can be shifted to a new generation of entrepreneurs and workers while services that adapt to the needs of the elderly and are of satisfying quality can be provided. This can help make Hong Kong a better place for those who are retired and those needing to make a living.
The new grey generation is more educated, is more active socially and politically, and is able to maintain an active lifestyle as they enter their 80s or even 90s. With our baby boomers entering into their older age, the misconception that the elderly are weak and fragile is quickly diminishing. Living in nursing homes is no longer the only choice for senior citizens to spend the remaining of their time on Earth. On the contrary, more and more people prefer to live in a community that they love until the end of their life journey. Instead of simply pursuing longevity, baby boomers are seeking a meaningful, integrated and active life in which they maintain control and choice.
Integrated policies on housing, social security, employment and taxation that allow market-based innovations to flourish, that give incentive to upgrade skills to improve the quality of elderly services, that encourage family and community support and that enable intergenerational transfer of assets all have a part to play.
Education to break down prejudices against the elderly and approaches that give individuals means to make decisions over their own lives rather than simply take welfare provision are key areas for improvement in the way this city treats the elderly. Allowing innovation and entrepreneurship to enhance services and opportunities for the older members of our society offers great prospects for the prosperity and happiness of every citizen and for Hong Kong to open a new chapter as one of the leading cities of the world.
This is the last in a three-part series on elderly care. [Part I] [Part II]
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