Many countries are now facing up to the reality of their ageing populations and taking steps to encourage and support people to work longer. This not only benefits elderly people themselves, but also helps to deal with the economic consequences of an ageing population. Japan has the most aged population in the world, and is beginning to take some positive measures to support its elderly population, and Hong Kong is looking to follow its lead.
One example is the creation of elderly friendly community housing structures. For instance, the Toyoshikidai housing estate in Kashiwa, a city 30km from Tokyo, is being created in conjunction with the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Gerontology. An old apartment complex built in the 1960s is being replaced with barrier-free 10- to 14-storey apartment houses designed to make life easy for single people living alone. The estate will include a “Community Eatery”, a dining hall that serves nutritionally balanced meals to the elderly as well as younger residents. It will also prioritise providing appropriate workplaces for its elderly residents – there are many jobs the elderly can enjoy doing if enabled to.
Professor Jean Woo, director of the Chinese University’s Jockey Club Institute of Ageing, is inspired by the project and believes it is something that Hong Kong should do too. She considers that if Hong Kong is age-friendly, people will be able to maintain greater functional capacity as they age. She comments that:
“It’s not just about money…Older people can continue to work flexibly part-time – you improve their health, increase their purchasing power and consumption, you’re using social capital, and you promote social cohesion, a kind of connectedness between all ages by their continued participation in society.”
In mid-2001, the median age of Hong Kong’s population was 37.2 years; in mid-2014 it was 43.7. In mid-2041, it’s projected to rise to 51.8, with the proportion of elderly (65 and above) jumping from about 15 per cent at present to 32 per cent. The institute has recently launched the “Help Build Hong Kong into an Age-friendly City Project” and aims to find out from elderly people themselves what sort of day-to day living changes and community features would help them out, rather than having a ‘top down’ approach. It’s hoped this will lead to the creation of long-lasting programmes and initiatives that will benefit everyone as the city’s population rapidly ages.
The idea of an age-friendly city was launched by the World Health Organisation in 2005, and a formal programme started in 2006 with 33 cities from 22 countries participating in a focus group research project. Desirable age-friendly features cover domains such as outdoor spaces and buildings; transportation; housing; social participation; respect and social inclusion; civic participation and employment; communication and information; and community support and health services.
WHO’s World Report on Ageing and Health 2015 also emphasises the many contributions that older people make which are often overlooked, stating the older populations are generally very diverse and make multiple contributions to families, communities and society more broadly. It also stated that policy needs to shift from an emphasis on controlling costs, to a greater focus on enabling older people to do the things that matter to them. What more can our cities do? Recently I recommended the book Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont; a poignant journey into aging that helped me to identify with the small problems faced each day as we inevitably all get older.