The Age of Uncertainty
Hong Kong continues to struggle with solutions to the aging crisis. But many experts say even with those efforts, elderly people are certain to suffer. Andrea Deng reports.
Growing demand for public elderly residential care homes Why promoting “ageing in place” is necessary? 33,368
Wong Chor-pat is a retired driver living alone in Fu Cheong Estate, Sham Shui Po. He drove trucks, tourist buses and public minivans. His retirement savings amounted to a sliver of the real costs he faces. What little he had was seriously pared by accumulating medical bills from his chronic illnesses.
Wong had a stroke a few years ago. Sometimes he can’t walk. He has heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Sometimes he gets dizzy and his eyesight is deteriorating.
“Someone asked me the other day if I’d like to drive a minibus. I said no. I don’t dare. I’ve fainted twice. It doesn’t matter if anything happens to me, but I can’t endanger others. I have no idea when I’ ll lose consciousness,” said Wong.
As Ng set foot in Wong’s single-living, public housing unit, Wong burst into tears, recounting his rapidly worsening health, with no one to take care of him.
Wong’s wife left him a few years ago. Now, he has only his sister who calls sometimes. Otherwise he talks to telephone operators who take his emergency calls when he needs help, or social workers who visit from time to time.
“On the coldest day last week, I couldn’t move my leg,” Wong told Ng. “I had to ring the (emergency) bell. An ambulance came. I was in hospital for three days.”
Wong survives on the HK$3,100 from the government’s Comprehensive Social Security Assistance Scheme every month. There are many old people like Wong, living alone, lacking care, and suffering from chronic illnesses.
“There are approximately 70,000 elderly in the community with dementia and needing some level of care. Many others have had strokes or other chronic illnesses and are virtually bedridden.
“Those who can afford it hire helpers. Those who can’t have to resort to institutions,” said Ng. That brings us back to the problem of long queues for public facilities, and the poor quality of service or the alternative of exorbitant pricing in the private ones. Online Watch the video by scanning the code.
All these (factors of an aging society) coming together actually makes it very challenging to meet the future needs of manpower. The consequence is basically, those who are in need will suffer. I don’t think the government has that sense of crisis.” Law Chi-kwong, associate professor, Department of Social Work and Social Administration, University of Hong Kong
Nursing homes are inevitable, said Law from the University of Hong Kong, adding that efforts should be made to reduce the need for elderly people to seek help from institutionalized facilities.
“The way to do it is through what we call ‘health management’, such as early identification (of illnesses), to reduce rapid deterioration and the onset of frailty. When elderly people start to develop early stage illnesses, health management or monitoring can prevent further deterioration. That has to come from technology,” Law told China Daily.
Apart from being wheelchair-friendly, Tanner Hill has state-of-the-art, experimental technology to safeguard the health of elderly residents.
There’s self-service equipment tenants can use to measure blood pressure, pulse rate and body temperature. Readings can be transmitted through Wi-Fi to a centralized monitoring counter managed by the property. In cases of abnormality, tenants or family members will be notified. It’s up to the tenants whether they want to share their personal health data.
Self-service equipment could benefit people living in their own homes. In Hong Kong, market development of eldercare products and technology has taken off only in recent years, and it will take a few more years to bring prices down, Law said.
The social enterprise Longevity Design House, offers alternative solutions to help elderly people stay home. The company retrofits houses so as to lower risks of injury to elderly people.
Designs include concealed doors to hide kitchens and exits to keep dementia sufferers from encountering sharp implements or from wandering away. Toilets can be renovated to make things easier for wheelchair bound residents.
Ray Tang, an interior designer and co-founder of Longevity Design House, said the company can convert a bedroom into an intensive care unit. That was done for an elderly resident who needed breathing devices and other machines to monitor blood pressure and heart rate after a serious stroke. The company retrofitted the room and installed tracks for a patient hoist, so that family members could help the person move between the bedroom and the toilet.
The service is aimed primarily at the middle class, including people who own a public housing unit but have no retirement savings. The company broke even on its books three months after the start up late last year.
“We have about 50 or 60 enquiries each month. This is a huge number for (regular) interior design firms. Usually they have 10 (enquiries) each month. In our projections, we will have around 500 to 600 percent of growth per month in the next five years, because more and more people are aware that elderly people should live at home rather than in eldercare centers or hospitals,” said Tang.
Tang admitted there’s not much his company can do for the poorest elderly people. A concealed door costs HK$8,000 to HK$10,000. Renovating a bathroom costs about HK$60,000. Even with the government’s building’s maintenance grant of HK$40,000 for elderly owners, a renovation on that scale may be beyond the means of many middle class people. The company plans to raise funding in January, to provide some service to the city’s destitute.
For social worker Ng, the least the government should do is to increase community health services for elderly people.
“Hong Kong has a student health service, but there’s no such universal program for the elderly. Among 1.17 million elders in the city, only 40,000 have access to an annual medical examination from the government’s elderly health centers. This is what the government should improve,” said Ng.
By 2041, one in three Hong Kong people will be above 65 years old. The city is promoting “aging in place” as a solution to the growing demand for residential care homes.
Law Chi-kwong, associate professor of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, at the University of Hong Kong, believes the key to enable more elderly people to age at home is to maintain their health through technology and community health service.
Tanner Hill is the Hong Kong Housing Society’s (HKHS) latest housing solution to “aging in place”. However, Daniel Lau King-shing, director of HKHS, said the project is targeting “those with better affordability”.