Safe as houses
ANYONE WHO HAS answered the call of nature in the middle of the night knows the perils of protruding chairs, low coffee tables, sharp-edged furniture and lamp switches so small and fiddly it hardly seems worth the effort. So imagine attempting the same task with joints stiff with rheumatism, failing eyesight and brittle bones.
If you're having trouble imagining it, don't worry - it's called old age and you'll be living it soon enough. Hong Kong's population is ageing rapidly and many of us are unaware how much our lives will have to change as we grow older. Simple tasks such as visiting the bathroom, making a pot of tea or even just drawing the curtains will take an increasing amount of time and effort. Many people with elderly friends and relatives - and property developers and architects - are still blind to the needs of the city's old folk. Yet things are changing, albeit slowly.
Mary Wong's 90-year-old mother was returning home from a stint in hospital and her daughter wanted to put a handle next to the toilet to help her climb on and off. With limited space, she thought some kind of collapsible handle would help. Her search took her to the Hong Kong Housing Society's Elderly Resource Centre in Yau Ma Tei, where she quickly discovered that collapsible furniture and pensioners aren't a good combination.
'I had this picture of a handle in my mind that I didn't know existed,' says Wong, whose mother lives in a private apartment with live-in help. 'Medical suppliers didn't have them and I was looking through this senior citizens' magazine when I found the [Elderly Resource Centre]. I went along and I was amazed at all the different types of handles they had.'
After a free home visit by one of the centre's occupational therapists, Wong's mother now has a (non-collapsible) handle to help her on and off the toilet, another for the bath and a special chair to sit on while washing - all for less than HK$500.
According to the Census and Statistics Department, the proportion of the population aged 65 and over will rise from 11 per cent in 1999 to 20 per cent in 2029. With the city's population expected to hit nine million, 1.8 million people will be elderly.
In a study forecasting the housing needs of the elderly up to 2011, co-author Rebecca Chiu Lai-har, assistant professor at the Centre for Urban Planning and Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong, found that the provision of upper mid-range to luxury private sector apartments with facilities for the elderly was seriously lacking.
Although government housing goes some way towards addressing the needs of low-income elderly people, and organisations such as the Housing Society cater for middle-income pensioners, no one is looking out for wealthier households, says Chiu.
Andy Chung Wai-tong, an occupational therapist and manager at the Elderly Resource Centre, may be able to help.
'We'll visit an elderly person's home and assess their daily routine,' Chung says. 'It's better for us to work with the person because a family member may not know what the problem is. They might come in and say, 'She needs a bath board', but after assessing the person we might find that doesn't solve the whole problem.'
Chung says requests for advice about so-called universal design - which aims to make living environments accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of age or ability - have risen steadily since the centre opened in July 2005. The Buildings Department hopes it will become standard for all housing. For the elderly, this means a safe, barrier-free home that meets more than just their practical needs.
The Housing Society's Universal Design Guidebook for Residential Development in Hong Kong highlights the huge number of obstacles and dangers in the homes of thousands of elderly people from items most of us take for granted.
The book contains some obvious pointers, such as replacing twist door handles with large levers that also turn into the door, so they don't catch on clothes. It suggests installing handles that can support 130kg by the bed, next to the bath and toilet, laying non-slip floor surfaces, removing thresholds and installing large, illuminated light switches.
For those in wheelchairs, it recommends a 1.5-metre turning circle in the lounge and bedroom, doorways at least 85cm wide and knee space under sinks, tables and kitchen work surfaces. Because most accidents happen in bathrooms, it suggests fitting large handles, clearly marked hot and cold taps and a 180-degree door that opens both ways and can be unlocked from the outside. It suggests replacing the bath with a shower and a seat. It also recommends installing call buttons linked to services such as the Personal Emergency Link.
It suggests buying furniture in a variety of colours and materials for the visually impaired, setting hot water thermostats to a maximum 43 degrees Celsius, painting interiors in warm, comforting tones, replacing the bathroom light with a heat lamp, keeping space below windows free of clutter so no bending is required to see out of them, and creating a small area where grandchildren can play in full view of their grandparents.
Chung says mental stimulation is as important as a safe, comfortable environment. This also means encouraging the elderly to leave their apartments, for a whole new set of challenges.
Walking through the Housing Society's Cheerful Court, a new development in Jordan Valley designed for elderly residents that includes a 24-hour health-care facility, senior manager of planning and development Benny Hui Hung-kit points out different coloured wallpaper marking each floor, wide corridors and easily recognisable pictures opposite flat entrances as among the many user-friendly aspects of the facility. He estimates that the development cost about 6 per cent more than a normal apartment complex, and says there's a waiting list for rooms.
A lack of awareness means Hong Kong is far behind cities such as Singapore when it comes to elderly-friendly developments, says Joseph Kwan Kwok-lok, global chairman of the International Commission on Technology and Accessibility and a council member of the International Union of Architects. Kwan, whose practice, Universal Design and Accessibility Consultants, specialises in design for the elderly and disabled, says the problem is compounded by a lack of firms specialising in the field. He says installing a ramp to the entrance of a building, a fold-down seat in a lift, handrails and visual guidance aids in corridors can cost less than HK$100,000.
'Part of the problem comes from architects and designers not interested in providing for the elderly,' he says. 'Then there's a lack of awareness of what to put in and how. Perhaps it should go back to building management or perhaps back to the design drawings. What difference does it make to have the [floor] numbers a couple of centimetres taller?'