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Applied Research in Singapore's Ageing Society: Methods, Philosophies, and Approaches

Service-learning, as an overarching research philosophy and approach, is positioned as a way in which future collaborative research and community outreach activities with other organisations may take shape by Associate Professor Carol Ma, Head (Gerontology Programmes) S R Nathan School of Human Development. With the community in mind, Prof Ma also promotes the concept of 'community gerontology', which is an area of research, policy and practice that aims to advance the knowledge and understanding of an ageing society for social good. In this article, we will learn more about how Prof Ma's previous body of work in community engagement helps advance gerontological research and community participation.

The foundation of community ageing and diversity is understood at three levels of social structure. Commonly recognised as "community gerontology", the broader meso level of community gerontology focuses on unifying constructs of purpose-driven groups of family, friends, and work utility[1]. The second level discusses pathways of mutual influence between these social meso level groups in the context of self, individual and intrinsic micro level along with societal, governmental, and systemic macro levels[2]. Third emphasises on participation from gerontology specialists in enabling change to conform with standard experiences of diverse subgroups. In conclusion, research in the field of community gerontology is an integrative structural approach that progresses in specific substantial areas, as well as larger gerontological environments.

Applied research in gerontology

Applied research in gerontology translates gerontological research into the development of services, programs and interventions to improve the quality of life of elderly individuals. It is an important research field, especially in Singapore, where the population of ageing individuals is rapidly growing. In 2019, 14.4% of Singapore's total population consisted of residents aged 65 years and above, making Singapore one of the most rapidly ageing societies in Asia, alongside Japan[3]. Further research, thus, is required to understand the specific needs and cultural contexts of Singapore's silver generation, so as to develop programs and infrastructure that best serve them.

Service-learning in applied research in gerontology

Service-learning, or community engagement pedagogy, is an educational approach that combines learning objectives with community service. It aims to provide a practical, progressive learning experience while meeting societal needs. It is incorporated into community service through students of academic institutions conducting projects that encompass both learning and community action goals[4]. These projects are designed collaboratively between the faculty and community partners, such as non-governmental organisations or government agencies, requiring students to apply course content to these community-based activities. These same activities may also facilitate research work when students encounter situations in the course of community service that require further investigation into elderly societal needs. Further, new studies based on similar studies conducted in other countries with a large ageing population may be carried out in future. Specifically, Prof Ma's previous experience in conducting service-learning related research work in Hong Kong may serve as a framework for similar proposals, such as in a project evaluating a city's level of age-friendliness, which seems relevant to and replicable with Singapore's ageing population. In this project, it is shown that collaborative research work may potentially be implemented to discover people's attitudes towards the aged and whether existing infrastructure sufficiently serves the needs of the elderly.

Applied Research in gerontology through collaborations

"Establishing Rapport and ongoing relationships with organisations ensures a greater ease of exchange of information to both the organisations and the research institutions about elderly groups."

Associate Professor Carol Ma

Further, as the nature of studies involving service-learning is inherently collaborative, collaboration with other organisations plays an essential part in the future of research in gerontology. Establishing rapport and ongoing relationships with organisations ensures a greater ease of exchange of information to both the organisations and the research institutions about elderly groups' dynamics, issues and problems. As the work of the students involved will consist of developing appropriate programmes and evaluation frameworks for the organisations, the organisations will summarily benefit from these tools and relationships with institutions. Intergenerational model: A study of health, well-being and social capital is a research project in collaboration with Ang Mo Kio Community Centre and Sport Singapore (SportSG), a statutory board of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. This project aims to inspire and transform the Singaporean community through sport, where students and faculty members had conducted needs assessments (before the restrictions mandated by the COVID-19 pandemic) to understand the bonding and preferences of physical activities, programmes and facilities among both young people and seniors. The research project eventually aims to assist with programme planning and creating evaluation frameworks. Students also collaborated with Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre (FSC), Sport SG, Asian Women's Welfare Association (AWWA), etc to apply what they have learnt from the class to develop detailed programme planning and evaluation frameworks for organisations' community projects. These collaborations allow for a more in-depth understanding of the issues that both the elderly and the organisations face. Further research can then be done to find appropriate measures to address the gaps, provide solutions and create changes in the community. This, in turn, will position gerontological research within a community-focused awareness of the needs and appropriate measures to undertake in tackling said needs—i.e., positioning it to be more applicable to policy-making and decisions regarding resource distribution and infrastructure.

The future of applied gerontology research through community engagement

Although the current ongoing COVID-19 pandemic situation stilted many collaborative and community outreach projects, the sudden and unprecedented digitalisation of many programmes and innovation of new technology provided researchers with valuable insights into existing and potential gaps in eldercare. For example, elderly individuals had to stay at home due to the cancellation of many social activities and closure of day-care centres during a period of state-mandated quarantine. This provided an opportunity for research in obtaining in-depth and comprehensive information, increasing awareness of these issues, and developing relevant solutions and proposals to resolve them.

An aspect of how technology intersects with eldercare is called the technology acceptance model, where research may be conducted about how open and accepting elderly individuals, caregivers and service providers are towards technological advancements which may improve the quality of life among elderly and even their caregivers. Many such individuals are apprehensive about adopting new technology, and applied research in this area may allow one to discern the barriers to acceptance, determine reasons for reluctance, as well as develop suitable approaches to overcome these misgivings. This is particularly pressing in current circumstance, where technological knowledge is essential for the elderly in Singapore to access necessary information and facilities at a time when disease prevention is crucial.

The implications of community outreach on applied research in gerontology

"Service-learning as a model provides opportunities for both faculty and students to get to know the underlying issues in the ageing community which could be translated into various applied research and community projects to serve the needy."

Associate Professor Carol Ma

Besides collaborations with organisations, a large portion of service-learning-based research consists of conducting community outreach programmes. Community outreach programmes are conducted by groups such as social service agencies, non-profit groups, and religious groups to identify specific needs in communities and provide appropriate services. For Prof Ma, the focus of service-learning is serving the communities she is in contact with, as opposed to purely academic publication-focused efforts—she focuses on advocating for co-development of communities and organisations and co-creating knowledge, with inter-organisational and inter-personal relationships positioned as a priority. For instance, in her work with disabled communities, Prof Ma, through conversations with individuals and analysing their problem statements that communicated their worries and concerns, was able to discern differences in needs and demands for support, and in turn extrapolate feasible research directions, such as towards resource limitations and a need for public engagement. Thus, service-learning as a model also provides opportunities for both faculty and students to get to know the underlying issues in the ageing community which can be translated into various applied research and community projects to serve the needy. Because of the varied benefits of community-based or community participatory research, Prof Ma hopes further organisational collaborations and community outreach projects will be planned to bring about awareness and deeper understanding of an ageing population's needs, establishing greater cross-generation social cohesion, and co-creating solutions to problems in the community.


[1] The Gerontologist (2018): Community Gerontology: A Framework for Research, Policy, and Practice on Communities and Aging
[2] Quality of Life Research (2021): Implications of response shift for micro-, meso-, and macro-level healthcare decision-making using results of patient-reported outcome measures
[3] Statista (2020): Aging population of Singapore-Statistics and Facts
[4] Vanderbilt University (2011): What is Service Learning or Community Engagement?

The Centre for Applied Research conducted the interview with Prof Ma in September 2020.

For enquires about this article, please contact CFAR via email.


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