Hong Kong has to start treating elderly people better

Updated: 2015-06-12 07:47

By Albert Lin(HK Edition)

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We need to treat our old people better. They are the ones who built Hong Kong by the sweat of their brow. They are the ones who brought us into the world. What are we thinking of when we fail to care for them?

One of the great features of Chinese culture is respect for elderly people. Okay, it may have been overdone in the past with all those Confucian moral tales about children sacrificing their lives for their parents, but the fundamental rule that you look up to and look after those older than you was, and remains, a sound one.

Now, we have scandals like the abuse of elderly residents in the Cambridge Nursing Home in Tai Po, which is doubtless just the tip of the iceberg.

Those residents could be your own parents or grandparents. Imagine your relatives being made to queue naked or semi-naked on a podium open to public view to take a shower. Imagine your granny in a wheelchair being stripped publicly.

Despite numerous inspections and warnings, this abuse at the Cambridge home continued for at least five years, the result of a failure of responsibility at many levels, from the care givers themselves right up the chain of management to government inspectors.

Note also that the police only decided to get involved after this abuse became public. It shouldn't be this way. The police ought to be capable of intervening whenever the law is broken flagrantly - be it exposed publicly or out of the glare of publicity.

We need to put in place a transparent and publicly accountable rgime capable of monitoring care homes for the elderly so we can ensure a high standard of care. Sorry, but this will have to include 24/7 CCTV.

And no gathering of the wagons and hunkering down from the medical profession, either. Those who harm those under their care should be fired and prosecuted.

We need to look more broadly at all categories of vulnerable people in society, from the very old to the very young, including mentally and physically handicapped people. Are we doing our utmost to give them an acceptable standard of personal care?

If we are not looking after people who cannot look after themselves, what has happened to our value system? Is our society so commercialized and mercenary that it just does not care about human beings any more just because they have past their "Best Use By" date?

Of course the problem is our society, like many others in the rest of the world, is getting rapidly older as couples in recent decades have put off having children and everyone is now living longer. People in Hong Kong outlast their peers in places like London and New York (where healthcare for the elderly is better).

The number of people aged over 65 in Hong Kong is expected to grow from around 600,000 in 2013 to 1.5 million by 2041, an increase of 146 percent.

As a proportion of the whole population, the over-65s will rise from 14 percent to around one-third!

At the same time, the workforce will grow more slowly, increasing the old-age dependency ratio. In other words, each person will have to work harder to support the retired and disabled population. Slower economic growth also means individuals will find it more difficult to support their elderly relatives.

A consequence of having fewer children and more divorces is that more and more elderly people are forced to rely on their own resources, as they have no children to look after them.

The only way to deal with this is to put in place a proper social security and healthcare system to provide a safety net for the weakest members of society.

We need to provide more support for families that opt to look after their infirm parents and grandparents. This means financial support and the provision of helpers and caregivers.

We need to build more care homes for old people and train more staff to a high level of competence and imbue them with an equally high sense of responsibility.

We also need more senior centers for the able-bodied over-65s, places where they can enjoy nutritious, cheap meals and fulfill their social and recreational needs.

I can hear the moaners complaining that they don't want the government to spend their tax dollars on all this. I bet they will change their tune when they hit retirement age and are thrown on the scrap heap.

At some stage, preferably sooner than later, the government is going to have to bite the bullet and spend money on the things that matter. If that means taxing people who can afford to pay, as the great economist Adam Smith decreed, then so be it. All other developed economies do this.

A society that doesn't care about its elderly and doesn't have the guts to dig into its pockets to fork out the necessary cash for their care doesn't deserve to survive.

It befits us all to remember: "To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors."

The author is a former journalist and civil servant.

(HK Edition 06/12/2015 page11)