Focus on ‘Aging’ in Service-Learning in Hong Kong HEIs: A Policy Proposal

Aging in Perspective 

Issues on aging revolve around the concepts of family, financial security, and institutional support. They stare us in the face from the inability to increase and sustain public transfer of resources from what the Asian Development Bank (ADB) terms as “surplus working ages” to the “age deficits”, which include the elderly (Park et. al., 2012). Addressing these issues becomes more compelling in the Asian context where richer economies, such as Hong Kong, China and Japan, experience a correlational growth between their gross domestic product (GDP) and aging population. The more their national coffers grow, the wider the gap becomes in terms of their ability to channel resources towards supporting their high aging populations. True, too, as in the case of Hong Kong, Gini coefficient correspondingly grows and marginalization worsens.

The debate, however, rests more on the receptiveness to address issues affecting the elderly. To what extent is Hong Kong willing to allocate more for the elderly outside what the ADB describes as voluntary familial (family care and provisions) and asset-based (reliance on savings and material assets) resource transfer arrangements?

In Hong Kong, 1 of every 6 is classified as elderly (65 years old and up), equivalent to roughly 16% of its population of around 7 million. The Research Office of the Legislative Council Secretariat (2015) projects the number of elderly people to rise to 30% by 2034 and close to 36% three decades later (the figures would be higher if to consider those within the 60-65 age range). Oxfam (n.d.) notes that Hong Kong has a poverty rate of 40% among the elderly — one of the highest in the world. When viewed against the low birth rate of Hong Kong pegged at around 1.3%, these figures show two complementary scenarios: a rich economy with high reliance on a decreasing number of working ages and one contending with resource allocation demands covering the disproportionate increase in consumption against production. And this exacerbates what already are challenges that the elderly are faced with — insufficient long-term health and medical care, limited housing, weak community support, and age discrimination in terms of income opportunities.

From a broader perspective, aging and its corresponding issues affect the rest of Asia and the globe. It presents inter-locking issues and provokes debates — from morality versus practicality to economics versus rights and culture. But moving forward, a point of reckoning is always the extent to which the society as a whole is willing to provide for the elderly.  The second half of this essay seeks to address this with a policy recommendation in the area of education — a powerful tool in influencing mindsets.

In Western communities, the arrangement that empowers young people to muster independence at the age of 18 somehow preconditions a setup wherein it is socially acceptable for the elderly to live outside their familiar family set-up. Thus, the popularity of homes for the aged and assisted living facilities where old people are cared for by strangers outside their family circle. Although the idea of young Americans living independently between the ages of 18 and 21 still prevail, the Pew Research Center (2013) released a study showing recent trends at record high of 36% (21.6 million) — up by 18.5% against 2007 figures — of young millennials in the United States staying under the same roof with their parents. Whether this translates to better care for their aging parents presents an interesting research focus. Its implication (young staying with aging parents) though could also be viewed relative to issues involving the elderly staying with their children who may already have families of their own.

The reverse of children entrusting their parents to care givers or home for the aged is not necessarily true in Asian communities. Although there is high regard for the elderly in Asian families, the increasing pressure on resources — financial, time and psycho-social — put the elderly at a disadvantage. Life has gone hard for majority of Asians that they are trapped in a dilemma over whether meager resources are either to be used fully to provide for their own families or a portion be set aside in favor of the needs of their elderly parents. This is not, however, to discount how Asians generally endure personal sacrifices in order to fulfill their commitment to their parents, largely attributed to a culture that subscribes to filial piety.

But even the value of filial piety, one more popularly considered Confucian but equally Buddhist and Judaic, is starting to lose steam in today’s generation. Family support born of filial piety has been reduced to mere satisfaction of the elderly’s most basic need; and government support in terms of long-term services for the elderly has remained poor (Chow, 2016). In poorer communities, practicality clouds the value of filial piety. The elderly are forced to become co-breadwinners, pressured to bring in income into the family or providing some service equivalent — a responsibility either imposed on them or absorbed voluntarily. But income security is always a challenge to the elderly. They suffer from age discrimination — employment escapes them, with their physiological and biological state assumed to limit their productivity, and industries looking at younger personnel in responding to challenges of unemployment (UFPA, 2011). In a survey conducted by the UNFPA (2011), 66 per cent of the respondents (old people) express the desire to gain employment and generate some income, in the midst of age discrimination that 67 per cent of them are convinced exists in society.

In cities with high poverty concentrations, such as the Philippines, the conditions affecting the elderly are much worse. It is bad enough to be classified as among the urban poor residing in the capital Manila, how much more to take on another marginalized categorization of “senior citizen” within that social classification. Here, the pressure on the elderly to translate presence into actual food on the table is much greater. Their role needs to be justified by finding the means to help earn a living (decent or otherwise), or running the household while their children are busy at work. The conditions that they are in blur the line between what is moral and practical and what is already abuse.

While the current trend is the aging population veering away from familial transfer of resources (reliance on family), there is growing anxiety as one moves up from young-old to old-old. Age reallocation shifts surplus resources from working ages to deficit ages, putting more pressure on the ratio of consumption to production (Park et. al, 2012) . Under a set-up where there is heavy reliance on public transfer of resources (government support such as medical vouchers and old age allowance), the elderly stand to lose. The elderly compete over a limited reservoir of resources filled and replenished by those in working ages. They find themselves entangled in a debate over moral or practical utilization of a chunk of the same resources built up by working ages. They then become victims of politics where their interest may come secondary to business and private interests and those of the greater majority belonging to the working class.

In the Asian context, the elderly are generally high-spirited, healthy, optimistic, and strong. Many even outlive their own children, with current life expectancy rates in Asia set between 79 to 87 years for women and 75 to 81 years for men. And yet, even in the continuing relevance and value of the elderly in both family and the society, there have not been enough mechanisms to ensure their active aging.

Policy Recommendation

In light of an aging population, there is greater imperative for both attitudes and policy reforms to be adjusted accordingly (Park et. al, 2012). While the elderly only accounted for 3 to 15 per cent of the population in Asia in the 1950s, the ADB forecasts their population hitting 33 per cent between 2021 to 2030. Given demographics where control and influence are largely with younger people, a considerable number of them within the working class, an effective and practical policy recommendation is in the area of education. You need to target the heart as you enrich the mind, and eliminate apathy. You need to inspire a bottom-up and collective lobbying for their rights. You need to translate the concept of welfare from a privilege or family responsibility to a form of rights. Otherwise, their causes rot away in the Legislative, delayed or shot down by interest-driven filibustering.

Hong Kong and other Asian countries can dramatically change mindsets when aging becomes a major component of experiential learning. Thus, the policy recommendation to incorporate the program of “Aging and Society” in the service-learning curriculum in all higher education institutions (HEIs).

The policy recommendation is feasible for the Education Bureau. Pushing for concrete social policy reforms for the elderly that would involve increased national spending outside the average 20% of GDP and 6.2% against GDP for social spending seems a long-shot goal. Current initiatives can then be redirected to the education sector, engaging HEIs in curricular adjustments or supplements. This may come across as a subtle move, but the potential is strong in terms of changing mindsets, increasing social consciousness, and facilitating collective advocacy for the elderly. Not to mention this move of government indicates movement in the campaign for better programs and services for the elderly, and gradually directs public attention on their concerns.

Service-learning provides an opportunity for young people to undertake community immersion and exposure. Many universities across Asia and the United States have adopted service-learning as a teaching pedagogy. It is credit- or points-bearing teaching tool that equips students with the needed social perspective to infuse a deeper meaning to discussions in the classroom. In many cases, it has provided a turning point in the lives of students. As Astin et. al. (2000) confirmed in their research: service-learning increases one’s sense of civic responsibility, and has strong positive influence on values, such as social commitment and community engagement.

Fittingly, service-learning programs are designed to be relevant to disciplinal thrusts and requirements. Students in the healthcare field, such as nursing, would likely pursue service-learning that involves use of traditional or alternative medicine. Those in engineering, who are undertaking service-learning in developing countries, may be considering inventing a mode of transport for goods in hinterland communities that incorporate use of endemic wood and are more suitable for a particular terrain and soil type. Without compromising the disciplinal thrusts, the policy recommendation tweaks this; it is directive and deliberate — focus on the elderly as recipients. Thus, nursing students may focus on elderly care in a traditional setting; engineering students may focus on innovation that ensures the ease and convenience of transport of goods for the elderly; and students of law and public policy may assist in consumer rights empowerment programs for the elderly.

This policy recommendation requires students to interact, work and collaborate with the elderly. It resonates with the UNESCO Institute of Education’s push for “school-based intergenerational programs”. These intergenerational programs facilitate social interaction between young people ages 21 and below and old people ages 60 up. It boosts the morale of older people, reinforce their value and productivity, while at the same time enabling the younger generation to learn from them and be part of their support system (Kaplan, 2001).

Targeting education may not directly lead to significant social policy reforms for the elderly, but it is a creative yet effective approach to gain public consciousness and support — the ultimate goals of any policy legislation. As well, it is a sound mechanism to arrest youth apathy in a manner that mirrors to them the conditions that they and their loved ones will be in past their prime, in their failure to act.

(Critical essay submitted as a requirement in the ‘Social Policy and Aging’ course under the Master of Public Policy and Governance program, The Education University of Hong Kong. Contact MRGarcia at markraygan@yahoo.com for reference list.) 

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