More than ever, people are becoming like fine wines: they’re getting better with age.
We’re living longer and living better than ever. While that’s wonderful, it’s a new source of stress for societies and public services. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, Hong Kong is getting old, and the time has come for the SAR to think long and hard about housing its elderly population.
An increasing number of independent-minded seniors are opting to remain in their homes of 20, 30 or 40 years rather than move into assisted care facilities or, gasp, in with their children, once the norm in Asia; things are changing here too. According to the most recent data from the Census and Statistics Department, 16% of all Hongkongers are over 65, with the largest segment of the population aged 50 to 59. Labour and economic issues that come with those numbers aside, an elderly population accounts for specific housing demand the SAR is dropping the ball on providing.
The Hong Kong Housing Society’s non-subsidised Tanner Hill, a “lifelong rental” project, hit the market in 2015 and has since been dubbed a moderate failure. Fewer than 400 applicants materialised for Tanner Hill’s 600-flat launch. “We usually target the low-to-middle-income group of the elderly, so this kind of project is still new to them,” HKHS director of development and marketing Daniel Lau told the SCMP in 2016. “People need more time to understand what this project is about… We have confidence that there will be more elderly who will apply in the future.”
Time will bear that out, but for now, seniors are compelled to take advantage of programmes such as the Malaysia My Second Home scheme and developments in retirement-friendly Thailand to stretch pensions and exploit existing assets.
No place like home
Entry fees at Tanner Hill for rental privileges started at HK$1.8 million and ranged as high as HK$20 million. At those prices, and with Hong Kong’s strata titling, it made more sense among the silver set that currently owns property to simply revamp what they already owned. Seniors opting to stay in their homes, and owners in general, are looking to design to make their residences more senior-friendly for the long term. “A lot of my clients these days are more concerned about their futures. They’ll probably live in their home another 10 or 15 years and they’re approaching that age and the issues that go with it,” says Clifton Leung Design Workshop’s Leung. “They do want to renovate at this stage and we do get these requests more now.”
In the US, older people and seniors have the highest rate of home ownership in the country (80%) according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, and over 50% of all renovation spend comes from those over 55. Most homes are poorly equipped for the quirks of elderly life, and lack features like wide, wheelchair-friendly doors, lever-type handles, low-set light switches and power outlets, bathroom grab bars, higher toilets, kerbless showers and level floors. Other design elements can include non-slip textured floors, contrasting colours for ease of sight, softer materials like wood and carpets, rounded corners and ample turning space. Senior-positive design is quite specific, and “It does require a little renovation work. You can’t just add a few bars, but it is possible,” says Leung.
The National Association of Home Builders in the US offers Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) programmes for designers and contractors seeking the tools necessary for “seniorising” properties, but nothing like that exists in Hong Kong — yet. The 2017 Policy Address promises, “The Elderly Commission is conducting the third-stage public engagement exercise of the Elderly Services Programme Plan. Preliminary observations show that the public and 55 stakeholders generally support the policy of ‘ageing in place as the core, institutional care as back-up’, reckoning that community care services should be strengthened.” There’s no word on who those 55 stakeholders are.
The non-profit Senior Citizen Home Safety Association (SCHSA) is one of the few currently advocating for senior-focused services and design safety (Leung designed their offices and community spaces), and conducts research on the subject. Its smart home pilot programme aims to empower seniors to age-in-place independently, safely and smartly. But Leung hasn’t heard any industry buzz about developers taking the long view or designing for the elderly.
Would Leung welcome something like CAPS or a specialty service within his own studio? “Yes, I would. A lot of people don’t know how to convert an apartment into a senior-friendly home. You need certain types of hardware and design code, specific measurements. There are a lot of considerations — and you need to understand each [client’s] lifestyle. It’s good service and a good market.”
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