Three categories to Aging


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1. Introduction

What is old? What is ageing?

There are three categories for older adults' ages, “young old”, “old old” and “oldest old” (Papalia et al., 2009). Young old is suggested as the age from 65 to 74; old old is suggested as the age from 75 to 84 whereas oldest old is suggested as the age of 85 and the above.

Ageing is a natural process in which it can be described in two dimensions. Primary aging is the gradual, inevitable process of ageing. It is unavoidable. It occurs throughout years even with efforts/ technology which are used to help to slow the ageing process down. The secondary aging is avoidable, as it results from disease, abuse. For instance, having a healthy lifestyle might help to reduce the risks of entering secondary ageing or delay the entering.

In a rapid developing society like Hong Kong, people seem to avoid talking about aging and view ageing as a negative process rather than a natural process. Therefore, ageism becomes one of the social problems in Hong Kong. Traxler has given the definition that if a person or a group of people who are subordinated because of the age by any means (e.g. action, attitude or by an institution) it would be classified as ageism.

Ageing situation in Hong Kong

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, International Database, the Hong Kong population pyramids 2010 has predicted that the dominant age group would be the 45-49 year-old people in which it would be close to 400 000 among the whole population in Hong Kong. The population of other age groups, 40-44 and 50-54 would be similar and close to the 45-49 group. By 2050, the leading age group would be the 80+ where the female 80+ population would get close to 700 000 while other age groups would remain similar and stay under 300 000 (National Master, 2003). The longevity is one of the possible reasons of the change of the population pyramids with the enhancement on medical technologies, the better prevention or prediction of diseases, the higher standard of living and so on. Ageing is unavoidable and it is an inevitable process for life. Because of this reason, I believe it is important to understand ageing in terms of theories and from that to develop possible solutions to tackle the problem or to smoothen the adaptation of the demographic changes in Hong Kong.


The objectives of this paper are:

(1) To overview aging and ageism in terms of different theories,

(2) To offer some possible solutions to promote positive images of ageing

2. Theoretical Perspectives

Disengagement Theory

This is a psychosocial concept to state that older adults will gradually disengage in a society (The Medical Dictionary, 2009). They are said to be inactive and being uninterested towards their possible participation in the society. This theory has bias towards ageism and has given people the negative point of view of aging.

Work/ job related disengagement

When older adults retire, the primarily disengagement is caused by their functions in society. Some of them stop working when they retire and are said to be “non-functional” towards the working field. Some would continue their work (part time or full time). However, some older adults that wish to continue their work always suffer in difficult job-seeking process. Employability for them seems to be low or lower in Hong Kong. It might be possible that some of them have accumulated much experience and in return the current wages would not be satisfied for them. It would end up that retirement would become a transition for them with a reduction in their incomes. In contrast, some less educated older adults might not be able to compete with younger jobseekers. Such two diverse reasons could use to explain why the employability for older adults is low.

Family relationship related disengagement

One of the reasons of the demographic changes would be the delay of marriage and it could possibly delay the life-transitions (Harper, 2004). For example, entering late adulthood later than the expected age, there are people confusing about the term “middle age” in which they believe that middle age could mean people that are 65+ in age (Papalia et al., 2009)) Because of that reason, there is potential that older adults experience disengagement with their children who leave home.

Alternatively, disengagement theory assumes that older adults have a tendency to get involve with people with similar ages forming a so called “homogenous group” (The Medical Dictionary, 2009). In my own point of view, I would believe that older adults are disengaging and from that new engagement is needed. While engaging with “new people” in which they are of similar ages with the older adults, they create or regain something that is meaningful or of value to them. There seems to be a contradiction between the assumption of the theory and its pessimistic explanation of ageing. In addition, there is also criticism for disengagement theory as it provides a negative point of view of ageing; it tends to reinforce the stereotypes of older adults. For instances, older adults are useless, inactive, withdrawn, etc (Palmore, 1999).

Clinical Frameworks

These are represented by medical, biological and naturalist theories. The main emphasize would be that the physical changes on the older adults. The physical changes are referred in term of biological perspectives. The nature of the framework seems not to be focused on the sociological perspective. However, the frameworks highlight a present change or sometimes viewed as an issue by people - the higher life expectancies. Dozois has stated that the advancement of medicine have led to greater longevity. When people have noticed the change in proportion of older adults over the population in the last century, ageism is worsen (2006). People raise concerns and accentuate that older adults are non-productive. Non-productive in this case claims that older adults consume lots of resources but in return they do not contribute toward what they have consumed. The large number of non-productive people might affect the society (mainly the economic side) in which the vast majority people would consider as a concern (Dozois, 2006)

Relating such frameworks to Hong Kong, some people believe that the government would need to pay more attention to the aging society. As a result, the welfare system in Hong Kong might experience a high demand situation in the coming next 10 years onward while the Hong Kong population is changing. Simultaneously, when Hong Kong is facing so many different economic crises, the rapidly evolving economic relationships with China and other countries, ageing would serve as a factor that affects the Hong Kong economy. In the future, the government might need to increase tax rate when dealing with the large population of older adults who are eligible to applying the old age allowance (OAA) in Hong Kong as one of the social welfare services. Consequently, the society might put forward a more negative image for the older adults in Hong Kong. It is like a circular causality to boost ageism.

Activity Theory

In my opinion, activity theory is the opposite of the disengagement theory as it describe ageing in a much more positive viewpoint. It basically says that how a person is being constructed in two major focused sources, (1) What they do and (2) The roles they have in their lives (Roy and Russel, 2005).

Similar to disengagement theory, activity theory claimed that people “give up” or “force to give up” roles as they age. When they retire from work, when they lose their partners, drop out of professional, clubs, unions and so on. Those are the parts that holding a person together as w whole. The sudden changes cause by the retirement might become the cue of why older adults would reduce their sense of identity. According to the humanistic theory, there are two selves, the actual self and the ideal self (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., 2009). The actual self is referred as how people understand one person in which the person recognize himself or herself from his/her surrounding and some personal perspectives. The ideal self is what the person wants himself or herself to be. The reduced sense of identity might be caused by the changing or losing of roles enlarge the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self. Roy and Russel suggest that activity theory should come to place that older adult should engage in activities (E.g. joining clubs or developing new hobbies). Older adults could develop new roles to substitute or replace those old and force-to-be-given-up roles. The theory has concluded the importance of late life activities in which to restore, maintain or enhance the well-being of the older adults (2005).

Rather than pinpointing the negative impact of ageing like disengagement theory, the activity theory could be served as evidence on why there is a need to promote the community participation for older adults

Exchange Theory

The exchange theory simply states that people should end the relationship with another person if nothing can be gained or exchanged from that person. This theory has shown its capitalistic point of view. The assumption of the theory is that people operate in order to gain material or non-material rewards and also people would try to keep the gained benefits (Moberg, 2001).

There are many exchanges in which that could affect one's 3Ps (3Ps are referred as power, prestige and possessions). The 3Ps are the three element derived from the social stratification. Social goods might not be concrete like material possessions, but also including other abstract items like psychological satisfaction and experiential pleasure (Moberg, 2001).

Older adults that could afford their own living could have relatives that would want to rely on them and putting the relatives or family in a dependent situation. Accordingly, those older adults seem to keep their personal power in which they could influence on others as well as controlling their own activities with their affordability such as financial wealth. They provide e.g. financial support to the relatives in return to keep their power.

Older adults that could not provide valuable things to their family or relatives might gain only little power within or outside the family. As they lose the power because of being a lower class, when they retire, they would find fulfilling the 3Ps as a hard process for them in which they are said to be oppressed because of social stratification. They would have nothing to exchange. Some hidden older adults in Hong Kong could well be a case of losing the 3Ps.

3. Possible Solutions to tackle the current situation

Extend the retirement ages - Providing chances according to the demographic changes

There is no statutory retirement age in Hong Kong but people that turning to their middle age would find it hard to seek for a job, so do the older adults. To provide more changes and focus on promoting job opportunities for older adults could reduce chances for older adults to suffer in poverty and financial difficulties. Moreover, it can also extend the older adults' engagement with the society and rejecting the clinical framework that older adults could not contribute to the society. Hopefully, it could help to change the biased perception of ageing and it might help Hong Kong to adapt the demographic changes.

Information technology (IT) for older adults - Getting older adults to involve

Possible work could be done in IT with older adults that could serve as a diversification as it is society oriented or situational.

With the support from the activity theory, there is a need to get the older adults to be involved. However, with the changing society, it has become a heavily technology-based society. Isolating the older adults might not be the best solution and it has also deteriorated ageism in Hong Kong. As a result, IT should be considered and be served as a tool to help the older adults to regain their identity in the society.

Let's start with introducing two existing technologies:

a. Personal Emergency Link

One of the popular technologies that are related to older adults in Hong Kong would be the “Personal Emergency Link (PE link)”. Such technology has been used since 1996. The service operates by connecting the PE link users through a so-called advanced communication system to a 24-hour PE link centre. By pressing the portable remote trigger, the PE link users would be connected and be able to talk to someone in the PE link call centre. In addition, the medical history of the user would be saved within the PE link organisation database and would send to the hospital when there is an emergency.

However, such service can only be used at home and only benefit to those that can afford or can apply for funding. This service is not universal and might act as a burden for older adults in Hong Kong. If such service could not cover the vast majority of older adults in Hong Kong, how do we evaluate the effectiveness of such service? Furthermore, as the PE link could only use at home, it cannot help when the older adults go out. It also requires the pressing action in order to help notifying the people in the PE link call centre.

b. Global Positioning System

Global Positioning System (GPS) is well-known among the mobile users as GPS is integrated into the mobile phone for ease of search different locations. Recently, there is investigation of GPS in Hong Kong. Assisted Global Positioning System based (AGPS-based) Elderly tracking system is being implemented in Hong Kong in an experimental level (Wong et al., 2009). Such system utilizes the mature technology - GPS in order to track and position a person in outdoor environment. In this experimental stage, the tested older individual needs to carry the device out with them in which some of the participants would find it “awkward”. Further development of such technology is needed with possible integration of AGPS-based elderly tracking system within the mobile phone. In addition, there is a need to improve its usability in indoor settings (Wong et al., 2009).

Both systems have shown how technology could help to improve older adults' lives and there are many different assistive technologies to help improving older adults' lives. But how we could make older adults participate in the IT-based communication society that is one of the dimensions that social worker should need to consider.

It seems that the two technologies have their advantages and disadvantages; however they alert the society, the government or the people that it is very important to have careful planning when dealing with older adults. What's more, sometimes, it is essential to change older adults' perception towards ageing as well as the general public. To compete with the fast growing technology, the perception shaping towards “IT for older adults” would need to be studies to allow useful means of intervention. However, it takes time for the society to be “reshaped”.

With the possible increasing uses of internet in the future, social security for older adults could become a concern. Older adults might become a target for crimes in which they might expose their personal information. A long-term approach of applying IT for older adults might be more suitable with proper education with any safety issues. There is always difficult to have a balance between the advantages and disadvantages of technology.

“IT for older adults” might become a future trend in Hong Kong with the ageing society and the need of the evolving information society. However, the cooperation between the government, social workers, older adults and any other stakeholders would be challenging. It is important to understand and to update the knowledge while implementing programmes as well as developing some unique technologies for older adults in Hong Kong. Last but not least, to assess the possible issues or problems that could cause by the advancement of IT.

Social workers should try to intervene in different levels and understand their responsibilities in helping older adults to establish social networks or their status in the information society. Referred to the social stratifications, the three elements are crucial and one of them would be the status. The status that would be established in the information society might have an important effect in confirming older adults' social status in the society. Consequently, to redefine older adults as worthies as other people in different age group and to reduce the possible status declining situation.

Micro level

Counselling online, in which internet would become a platform for older adults to express their opinions and to find social worker to talk to. There is no doubt that some older adults tend not to seek for help from social workers as sometimes they believe that social workers are working for those that are in poverty or disables. Some older adults do not understand the nature of social work profession. By using IT, social workers might be able to develop a more diverse social function in the society.

Mezzo level

IT programmes for older adults could allow older adults to have access to computers and also to build up social networks through the use of computers as well as being involved in the classes satisfying the description of activity theory. In addition, older adults who join the IT programmes would exchange something of valuable to them, for example new relationship (friendships).

Macro level

Social worker might need to consider and assess the accessibility of IT to older adults. Because of that, social workers would need to understand and equip themselves with the up-to-dated technologies. In addition, there is a need for better communication between social workers and the Hong Kong government, because when the society is changing and developing into an “information society”, there is a need for the government to consider evolving the welfare. By developing welfare services with IT for the older adults, social workers might need to raise the importance of this new concept.

Social Movement and Social Campaign - Changing the stereotyped perceptions

Following the previous part - the macro level intervention for IT, social workers should act as a helping professional to help organising social movement to fight for the welfare for older adults. At the same time, they should highlight the importance of such movement or campaign to the government and the general public. It is not only the responsibility of the government to provide adequate resources to the older adults; it is also the responsibility for the society. The Hong Kong society seems to neglect the special needs of older adults with the limited facilities that the society has provided for older adults. I believe by changing the perceptions and consolidate the understanding of demographic change and ageing to the general public, the awareness could be raised. Social movement and social campaign could serve as a form of community education and a catalyst to influence policy development in Hong Kong.

4. Conclusion

Theories help to explain ageism however they could also be served as an emphasis of ageism and providing the negative image of ageing. Social workers should always equip themselves with related theories to understand such inequality in a long term perspective. Furthermore, social workers should also have up-to-date information on such social phenomenon which allows them to integrate theories with current situations. Consequently, social workers would provide precise or related intervention.

For this paper, one of the main conclusions is that social workers in Hong Kong should try to change the present negative perception of ageing for both the older adults and the general public as a primary step to solve ageism. Providing job opportunities for older adults, integrating older adults with IT as well as organising social movement and campaign could be some possible area in which social worker could work on cooperating with theories.

5. References

Currey, R. (2008). Ageism in healthcare: Time for a change. Aging Well, 1(1), 16.

Dozois, E. (2006). Ageism: A review of the literature . Alberta: Word on the Street Consulting Ltd..

Harper, S. (2004), Families in Ageing Societies - A Multi-Disciplinary Approach. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 4th December 2009 from

Moberg, D. (2001). Aging and spirituality: Spiritual dimensions of aging theory, research, practice, and policy. Binghamton, New York: Haworth Pastoral Press.

National Master (2003). Hong Kong Population Pyramid 1990 - 2050. Retrieved 1st December, 2009 from

Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Fredrickson, B.L., Loftus, G.R., Wagenaar, W.A., (2009) Atkinson and Hilgard's Introduction to Psychology (15th ed.). Thomson: Wadsworth.

Palmore, E. . (1999). Ageism: Negative & Positive. Springer Publishing Company.

Papalia, D.E., Olds, S.W., Feldman, R.D. & Gross, D. (2009). Human Development (11th ed.). McGrawHill, Boston

Roy, H., & Russel, C. (2005). The encyclopedia of aging and the elderly. MedRounds Publications.

The Medical Dictionary. (2009). Disengagement Theory. Retrieved October 22, 2009 from

Traxler, A. J. (1980). Let's get gerontologized: Developing a sensitivity to aging. The multi-purpose senior center concept: A training manual for practitioners working with the aging. Springfield, IL: Illinois Department of Aging.

Wolf, L. (1998). Ageism: An introduction. Retrieved 30th October, 2009 from

Wong, A. K. S., Woo, T. K., Lee, A. T., Xiao, X., Luk, V. W., (2009). An AGPS-Based Elderly Tracking System. Retrieved 1st December, 2009 from

Youth Rights Network. (2007). Ageism. Retrieved 30th October, 2009 from

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