Coping with old age

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 August, 2006, 12:00am

STAYING YOUNG AND looking good in our celebrity obsessed culture has almost become an obsession for many people.

But despite our attempts to stay youthful, the world's elderly population is increasing rapidly as medical advancements enable people to live longer and birth rates fall.

According to the University of Hong Kong's Sau Po Centre on Ageing, the proportion of those aged 65 and over in the city will rise to 24 per cent in 2031 from 11 per cent in 2001.

By 2025 Asia's elderly will make up more than half of the world's aged, with such demographic changes expected to have serious ramifications for economies everywhere.

Non-governmental organisations that offer services for the elderly are also facing tighter budgets following the government's reformatting of its funding mechanism a few years ago. The financing is now a lump sum yearly grant that puts a cap on the amount spent.

'The government used to fund 100 per cent of our organisation's needs and if we ran out we could ask for more,' said Amy Ho kit-fan, regional director at the Hong Kong Society for the Aged.

She is responsible for the Tsuen Wan, Kwai Chung and Tsing Yi districts, which house the highest proportion of elderly people in Hong Kong.

Amy Li Yau Suk-fong, a community service officer at the organisation, said: 'It is much more challenging to be in our line of work now.

'Before the current fiscal set-up we focused only on doing our jobs well, but now we have to assume additional fund-raising responsibilities, too.'

The challenges facing such organisations are the sheer volume of elderly people and the need to meet the demands of a diverse elderly age group, which spans from those in their mid-50s to 90 year olds.

'Our challenge is to simultaneously meet the needs of the up-and-coming group of ageing people and the very old,' Ms Li said.

'There used to be few people in their 90s, but with advances in medicine people are now living for much longer.'

It is not just the years that are separating the groups from each other - their upbringing and educational backgrounds differ, too, as the younger generation of elderly born after the second world war are likely to have had a better education.

Starting a new hobby or keeping up with an interest is critical for the elderly because it gives those who have retired a purpose and ensures that they maintain an interactive relationship with society.

Classes can range from general interest to the more practical such as IT.

The Cyber Senior Network Development Association, set up in 2001, trains elderly people to use e-mail, the internet, MSN messaging and a range of PC programmes.

Grace Lam, the association's public relations officer, said: 'We initially started up as just a website offering useful information to help the elderly, but we then realised that they wanted to learn about computers, so we extended our services to teaching in 2002 and opened a centre in Kwun Tong.'

Another issue that will pose a headache for governments is the increasing elderly population's dependence on society.

According to the Hong Kong Council of Social Service, the ratio between the elderly and the working sector is expected to further widen in the long term.

Estimates project that by 2029 every three people in the workforce will have to support one older person. Such a heavy toll on society is the reason why the Society for the Aged is focusing on preventative measures, such as by employing nutritionists and physiotherapists to maintain the health of the elderly and reduce the cost of medical bills.

With the anticipation that more elderly will be living on their own in the future, the Senior Citizen Home Safety Association's emergency link service will be even more in demand.

More than 80,000 elderly people in the past 10 years have made use of the service at a cost of $100 a month. The service is designed for elderly people who live on their own or are left for long periods of time by themselves.

They can activate a button in their home which will automatically trigger an alarm alerting the association's call centre that help is required.

The centre will then call for an ambulance and simultaneously fax the person's medical history to the relevant hospital.

Association executive director Timothy Ma said: 'More than 70 per cent of elderly people have more than one type of chronic illness, from heart disease to hypertension, and this trend is set to increase as people live longer.

'So, we hope to be able to give the elderly more choice of services in the future.'

More than 80 per cent of elderly people lived with their families. About 12 per cent to 14 per cent lived alone and the rest in elderly homes and hospitals, he added.

Ms Ho said that as the demand of elderly services rose, job opportunities in the field were expected to grow with a range of work opportunities for people with different skills.

key players


Social workers




HR professionals

Financial practitioners

Community service officers



Dementia A clinical syndrome involving a continual and gradual loss of intellectual function, leading to cognitive impairment and memory loss.

Alzheimer's disease A progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person's memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate and carry out daily activities.

Parkinson's disease A brain disorder that occurs when certain nerve cells in a part of the brain die or become impaired.

Physiotherapy A health-care profession concerned with human function, movement and maximising potential. Physiotherapists work in a wide variety of settings such as intensive care, mental health, stroke recovery, occupational health and care of the elderly.