Y E Ng shares a collection of thoughts about her work as a researcher in a cross-cultural setting, with her PhD research focusing on design considerations for Indigenous residents in residential aged care.

In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations have increased significantly over the last decade, especially in South-east Queensland, where this population is highly urbanised and ageing. The significant under-representation of ageing Indigenous people in the Australian aged care system is the result of a lack of cultural understanding, culturally appropriate environments and cultural safety for these people. There is a limited number of residential aged-care homes and care settings that have been designed to support the social and cultural living preferences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. There is also little evidence-based design research or specific literature on the design of culturally appropriate environments for Indigenous people in residential aged care settings for architects and aged-care service providers to plan, design or upgrade the care settings. Current aged care guides and design standards provide little sense of what can be done to improve the living experience of these populations.
My doctoral research at the University of Queensland aims to provide empirical evidence about Indigenous residents’ social and cultural practices in residential aged care homes. Using a case study approach, I investigate how architectural design might be used to improve the lived experience and wellbeing of Indigenous residents and their connections to Country, culture, family, kin and Community. I carry out this analysis by observing four residential aged care homes in South East Queensland, and using architectural documentation, participant observation, physical trace observation, behavioural mapping and semi‐structured interviews to collect the data. The data collected is then analysed and compared to reveal social and cultural practices, and the varied physical environment that affords the Indigenous residents’ pattern of interactions.
The research project provides critical insights into what creates a culturally appropriate built environment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living in residential aged care home and care settings. Findings from the study can assist architects and aged-care service providers to make more informed consultation, and establish project briefs that sustain cross-cultural practices.

Alignment of worldviews

I grew up in Singapore. This exposure to a multicultural environment taught me to appreciate and celebrate cultural differences, and has made me comfortable working in a cross-cultural setting. Additionally, my upbringing with Chinese Singaporean parents instilled in me respect for the elders and filial piety, values which are similar to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ views of kinship and respect for elders.

In Indigenous culture, elders are valued for their wisdom, experience and knowledge, and their guidance is often sought in community decision-making. Elders are also regarded as the keepers of traditional knowledge, and their role in passing down cultural practices and values to the younger generation is highly respected. In many ways, this is similar to the Chinese proverb ‘家有一老如有一宝’ (jiā yǒu yī lǎo rú yǒu yī bǎo), which emphasises the importance of valuing the elderly. Having an elderly person in the household is considered a cherished asset, as they bring wisdom, experience and guidance to the family. The similarities in worldview and my upbringing are the primary reasons why I am comfortable working in a cross-cultural setting with Indigenous elderly.

A non-Caucasian, non-Indigenous researcher working in a cross-cultural setting

Research has shown that Indigenous researchers face various unique challenges when working in a cross-cultural setting involving Indigenous people. One significant challenge is navigating the power dynamics between themselves, their community, and the research participants, who may view them as representing external interests rather than serving the community’s needs. Or they may feel torn between their role as a researcher and their identity as a community member.  For the Caucasian researcher, the history of colonisation and exploitation often leads to suspicion and a lack of trust.

I encountered a different set of challenges during my two years of data collection. As a non-Caucasian, non-Indigenous researcher I had no association with past dispossession or prejudice, which allowed me to be quite direct in my questions.  Interviews with Indigenous staff members revealed that many were at ease sharing their thoughts with me, not only because of the trust developed over the time I had spent in the aged care home but because I was non-Caucasian and non-Indigenous. One of the staff participants revealed that it was challenging for her as an Indigenous person to care for elderly Indigenous residents. Her fair skin led some Indigenous residents to request care from other Indigenous staff members, even though she was a Bundjalung woman with family ties to the Arakwal people of Byron Bay in NSW.

Methods and time

I spent many months reading about quantitative and qualitative methods until Professor Joe Reser shared his recommended reading list on research methods. Both John Zeisel’s Inquiry by Design and Robert Gifford’s Research Methods for Environmental Psychology are highly valuable for testing and applying methods related to architectural and environmental behaviour studies in the field. Both authors provide insights into various techniques, methods and tools to understand human behaviour in relation to the environment. The clarity of the methodology and how the research data is collected gave me confidence to test some of these methods during my early fieldwork. It enabled me to refine my methods as I analysed and processed the data across different case study sites.

I would like to draw attention to the importance of spending sufficient time on the ground, which is crucial in capturing subtle changes in the physical environment and to observe how people use space in order to inform design considerations.  I spent almost two years collecting data across the four case study sites, which helped me refine my methods and analyse the data across the different study sites.

Social inclusion begins in the community

Social inclusion begins in the community, and improving the quality of life of the Indigenous elderly is best begun at the grassroots level.  An effective initiative is an accessible day centre or centre-based care for the elderly, located in the neighbourhood, offering a wide range of activities designed for elderly wellbeing and a comfortable, safe space in which to socialise and reconnect with the community.

One example I discovered during my research is the centre-based care run by the Institute for Urban Indigenous Health (IUIH). Twice a week, a community bus picks up the elderly from their homes and brings them to the care centres located in Morayfield, Gladstone, Ipswich and Goona (South-east Queensland). Upon arrival, the elderly gather for a morning tea, followed by various social activities, including preparing for the Deadly Choices Indigenous Senior Games, an annual sports competition for  participants aged 50 years and older. The games include darts, quoits, ten-pin bowling, hole-in-the-wall and number mats. In addition to the Deadly Choices Senior Games, a wide range of activities are carried out in a safe and secure setting, making it an excellent way to improve the quality of life of the elderly.

Successful participation and engagement in centre-based care relies upon access transportation for the elderly, who may have difficulty getting out and about. Additionally, the design of these centres  must factor in  accessibility, access to restrooms and outdoor areas, and a flexible setting that accommodates a variety of activities.

While my research argues for a culturally responsive environment in residential aged care, care needs for the elderly should also be considered at a community level. Unfortunately, centre-based care is not widely available, despite its benefits. This raises questions about whether funding complexities are deterring providers from establishing more centres, and whether council or local planning can support and improve the quality of life for the elderly who wish to remain at home and age in place.

Using research to inform practice

Having submitted my PhD at the end of 2022, my research has had a significant impact on informing the evidence-based design approach in practice. I had the opportunity to utilise my research through a building evaluation study of an aged care home, which helped the client understand their residents’ satisfaction with their living environment. By collecting the data, we could make informed decisions and carry out minor modifications to the visual communication elements in the built environment, resulting in a more home-like environment for the elderly. The application of evidence-based research has continued to be a strong theme throughout my work, and I am grateful that it has helped to achieve better health and care environments.    

Y E Ng is a doctoral candidate at the University of Queensland, who researches the design considerations for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander residents in aged care homes. She submitted her thesis at the end of 2022. As part of her 2019 UQ’s Ceridwen Indigenous Scholarship, she travelled to aged care facilities in the remote Northern Territory; Mutitjulu and Docker River.

Y E is also a Senior Associate at Architectus Conrad Gargett, working on projects in the cross-cultural context, including the Mt Isa Hospital Redevelopment, Jimbelunga Nursing Centre and Nareeba Moopi Moopi Pa Aged Care Hostel. Y E is passionate about creating age inclusive spaces and culturally responsive spaces. 

Y E was a guest speaker at Parlour LAB 19 – a challenging and rewarding session on designing for dementia and culture in residential care environments (now available to watch as a video recording).