Age-friendly Neighbourhood Makes All the Difference

Dr Jia Miao’s research on Hong Kong highlights the important role of the neighbourhood in supporting and caring for the elderly. With populations growing older around the world, the well-being of the older population has become a significant part of the  policy agenda. Yet different cities with diverse cultures and residential layouts require diverse solution. Hong Kong’s serious housing shortage and shrinking family sizes creates specific challenges in finding ways to improve the well-being of the elderly.

Dr Miao has spent many years working on the Hong Kong Panel Study of Social Dynamics (HKPSSD) which is the first-ever city-wide representative household panel survey in Hong Kong. HKPSSD is conducted by the Center for Applied Social and Economic Research (CASER) at HKUST. A longitudinal study with a city-wide representative sample size of 3214 households, it has been collected since 2011 with the aim to provide empirical evidence for researchers to study how the Hong Kong society changes on the socioeconomic level over the years and their impact on people’s daily life. Every household member has received face-to-face interview and follow-up interview every two years over four survey waves. The survey includes customized questionnaires for different age groups with a comprehensive coverage of issues such as housing, social and economic changes, education, employment, household expenditure, health and social relationships. Dr Miao’s studies on Hong Kong’s elderly are based on the HKPSSD with the aid of a special module about aging. There are questions specifically designed for the late middle-age group on their family function, mental and physical health, life in the neighbourhood, and relationship with other family members. 

One strand of the project studies the effects of Hong Kong’s family living arrangements on the well-being of the elderly. In a traditional Chinese society, having multiple generations under one roof is a core family value and the elderly are usually taken care of by their adult children. Dr Miao and her team however have discovered that learnt that Hong Kong’s elderly are less likely to live with their adult children compared Taiwan or urban mainland China due to housing problems, shrinking family sizes and more rapidly changing family norms. As a society modernizes, retirees may become less likely to rely on their family when they age. Instead, social participation plays an increasingly important role in their daily life. 

Another line of study investigates the impacts of the neighbourhood environment on mental health with a focus on the social aspects of a community. Hong Kong’s government is actively promoting “aging in place”, which encourages the elderly to live in their own home rather than elderly homes, as well as the concept of “age-friendly neighbourhoods” which mainly focus on infrastructure and accommodation condition. Dr Miao’s research seeks to highlight the importance of the social aspect such as interpersonal interaction within the community. Her team have mapped all the community centres in Hong Kong and found that areas with more neighbourhood elderly centres and better facilities tend to have lower depression rate. Within the centres, the elderly can enjoy a variety of activities, for instance, cooking classes, lessons on how to use the smartphones and free lectures on maintaining mental health which could also create the opportunities for older people to make new friends. The research shows that more social participation opportunities could potentially enhance the well-being of the elderly. Rather than putting an overwhelming emphasis on the responsibility of the family, encouraging the elderly to develop their social network beyond their family is the right way to go. By participating in various social and cultural activities, older people can contribute their lifetime of experience and knowledge to the community through active social participation. An active and productive life, in turn, could improve their physical and psychological well-being.