Hands across the ocean
IT could be the only chance in their long lives to find out about foreign cultures through living with people from different countries - even if it is only for a week.
A group of senior citizens from nine countries will converge on Hong Kong next week, joining scores of others from the territory, at a holiday camp in Sai Kung.
With a host of foreign national flags flying, it promises to be a lively affair, despite the age of the participants.
The visitors will gather for the 'Away From Home' project, run by the charity Helping Hand, with sponsorship from the Dutch airline, KLM.
It is Hong Kong's first opportunity to play host to such a unique group. Twelve pairs, each comprising of an elderly person and a young companion with proven ability to take care of their partner, are due to arrive this weekend. Helping Hand, a voluntary body established in 1978 for the welfare of needy old people, came up with the idea in response to a worldwide competition to find worthy cross-cultural projects. It is called 'Bridging the World' and was launched by KLM to celebrate its 75th anniversary last year.
The contest generated a huge response. Between last October and November, the Dutch capital was flooded with more than 12,000 entries from 120 countries.
Helping Hand's 'Away From Home' project - one of 200 proposals from Hong Kong - was one of five Asian winners picked by an international jury led by the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers.
There were 12 first prize-winners worldwide. All costs needed to implement their projects, including transport, accommodation and other expenses will be met by KLM.
One first-prize winner, an American woman, had her dream fulfilled by the jury. She will fly 25 people called Anne - from various countries - to the Netherlands during the summer in memory of Anne Frank, the teenager whose diary highlighted the plight of a group of Jews in World War II.
An Australian conductor now also need not worry about money while offering classes to musicians in Kiev, Ukraine, after winning a prize in the competition.
Another cross-cultural project comes from a man from Japan, who called for a conference on children's literature in Copenhagen.
Youngsters from many countries will take part, bringing their favourite books along for discussion.
Helping Hand's project won a second prize, which means it has to shoulder part of the cost. KLM is only providing air-tickets.
Dana Chu, Helping Hand's executive director, expects the project to cost $20,000, but thinks it is worth it.
'We hope the elderly will feel at home here. Many elderly people in Hong Kong and overseas are leading isolated lives. They have few chances of travelling abroad.
'For some of the participants, it will be the first time they have ever travelled outside their country,' she said at the Helping Hand office, sited in a former military hospital on Hong Kong Island.
She had just a couple of months to put together the itinerary and a list of participants by liaising with overseas affiliates of Help Age International. The countries represented are Canada, Ireland, Kenya, Ghana, Chile, Argentina, Britain, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica. The oldest visitor is a 78-year-old Czech.
Chu believes staging the event can help promote Helping Hand's scenic Cheung Muk Tau Holiday Centre for the Elderly. Overlooking Tolo Harbour, it was built with Government funding in late 1993 and is equipped with facilities such as venues for lawn bowls and archery, and has classes in arts and crafts such as the tea ceremony and pottery. Chu concedes it is still not as well known as it should be. Six pairs from Hong Kong will join the overseas visitors and she hopes the pioneering project will serve a wider purpose in spawning more interesting programmes for the elderly in the territory.
Old people living with their families, who seldom go out and never make contact with social service agencies, may continue to be cut off from the facilities created for them.
'They can bring the best out of themselves by being volunteers,' said Chu.
'Many workshop instructors at our holiday centre are retired, but very experienced.'