Principal investigator: Dr Tracy LU Shiyu (Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences)
With a decline in birth rate but a rise in life expectancy around the world, the ageing population is an inevitable consequence leading to a series of challenges. Hong Kong is no exception. It is expected that by 2040, one in every three Hong Kong citizens will be an elderly aged 65 or above. Another prominent feature of the ageing population is the rapid increase of elderly population aged 80 or above in the coming 40 years. The government estimates that the proportion of elderly population aged 80 or above will surpass 30 per cent by 2066. People commonly focus on the negative aspects of ageing, and the elderly are often seen as a vulnerable group in society. However, their rich life experience, wisdom and networks linked with communities and societies comprise an essential source of social capital investment for the community.
The World Health Organisation declared 2020-2030 as the “Decade of Healthy Aging”, emphasising the need to create a supportive environment to maintain older adults’ functional ability and remain a resource to communities. Nevertheless, the means of enhancing social capital for promoting healthy ageing among older adults remain unclear. There has also been limited theoretical discussion on how social capital can be enhanced in the “Decade of Healthy Aging”. Dr Tracy LU Shiyu of CityU’s Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences recently published a research article “Promoting social capital for healthy ageing: Towards an integrative framework” in The Gerontologist, suggesting an integrated theoretical framework to enhance social capital for healthy ageing.
The research paper presented opportunities for and challenges to social capital to achieve healthy ageing. Older adults possess a wealth of life experience and knowledge about communities, and they are generous to share and contribute. They also have a greater sense of community belonging to their neighbourhood. Governmental awareness and policy efforts to create a supportive environment for social participation among older adults have increased in recent years, showing that the present is an opportune time to enhance social capital. But older adults generally face the challenges of shrinking social networks and life spaces due to varying levels of functional limitation as people age. The impact of COVID-19 also poses a threat to older adults by intensifying inequality in social capital accumulation among older adults exists by gender, race, and socioeconomic status, in turn sharpens inequalities in health outcomes among older adults.
Given the above opportunities and challenges, Dr Lu and her research team proposed a theoretical framework with three key interconnected elements at three levels to improve social capital for healthy ageing: (1) individual level: facilitating emotional meaningfulness via social participation for older adults, (2) community level: incorporating older adults as co-producers in community development, and (3) society level: nurturing an inclusive and equal society. Such a multilevel perspective in enhancing social capital can impact the health of target beneficiaries and others connected to them.
Timebanking was used as the case for illustration because the values behind it align with the components in the aforementioned theoretical framework. The concept of timebanking was first developed in the 1980s by the US legal reformer Edgar CAHN. It is a form of community currency that rewards each hour a member gives to their community through voluntary activity with a one-time credit. The earned time credits can be exchanged either for another person’s time, use of services or other tangible rewards provided by partner organisations.
Timebanking promotes peer-to-peer interaction and community participation through building a mutual help network and providing volunteering opportunities in the community. It also gives older adults time credits that make their contributions visible and countable. In addition, timebanking provides a platform for asset building within the community; everyone is an asset to the community and can co-produce wealth, which creates a new role identity as “prosumers” (one is a producer and also a consumer). For example, one retirement timebank in Switzerland enables adults aged 50 and older to offer assistance and company to older people and receive time credits towards similar services in their own old age. Furthermore, timebanking catalyses collaborative actions from different stakeholders and forms cognitive platforms to promote equality and inclusiveness.
The research paper of Dr Lu is the first article to conceptualise how social capital can be enhanced in an ageing society, with three components in a multilevel theoretical framework. Future research may apply this framework to analyse various effective interventions from the social capital and public health perspectives to deepen the theoretical understanding of enhancing social capital for healthy ageing. It also provides a practical illustration by using timebanking as an intervention to enhance social capital in an ageing society. In future, it is hoped that the effect of timebanking can be further tested to provide better evidence to strengthen society’s sustainability in meeting long term care demands. Dr Lu is leading a research project entitled “The Effects of the TimeBank Program on Promoting Voluntary Participation among Older Adults” funded by Research Grants Council – General Research Fund, with aims to provide evidence to the effectiveness of time banking programme in promoting volunteering among older adults.
Achievements and publication
Lu, S., Chui, C., & Lum, T. (2022). Promoting social capital for healthy aging: Towards an integrative framework. The Gerontologist. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnac062