Grim choices facing the elderly

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2012, 12:00am


Ng King-yin has finally been offered a place at an aged-care home after two years of waiting. But he must choose between staying with his wife of 70 years and the care that he needs.

Ng, who is 100, wanted to live out the rest of his life with Lam Sau-king, 95. But Lam was not eligible for a regular care home place because of her poor health.

The pair joined the waiting list for a place in an aged-care home in 2009. They were assessed and put forward for regular care. But in August, when they were offered places, a new assessment found that Lam was no longer eligible for regular care and needed a nursing home because of her worsening condition: she is now bedridden with Alzheimer's disease.

Their choices were grim: Ng could move into a care home, and separate from his wife of seven decades; or he could forfeit the space to wait for a place for the two of them at one of the 17 homes offering both regular and nursing care spaces; or Ng could wait for his own health to deteriorate and join his wife in a nursing home.

There are 21,283 elderly people waiting for regular care home places and 6,575 for nursing homes. The average waiting time for a regular care place is 22 months, and it is 37 months for nursing homes.

Those whose health is normal are sent to 'care and assistance' homes, which provide regular aged care. Those who are seriously ill or need special medical and physical care go to 'nursing' homes. There are 17 homes in the city that provide both.

In last week's budget, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah allocated HK$44 billion to welfare and promised to add 2,600 places in homes for the elderly by 2015.

But Ng Wai-tung, a social worker with the Society for Community Organisation, said the budget had failed to address the chronic shortage of services for elderly people. 'Adding 2,600 spaces in four years? This is ridiculous when more than 4,000 old people die waiting in line each year,' Ng said. 'Society owes the elderly: they contributed to building Hong Kong into the city it is today. But they are written off by the government as a 'burden' to society.'

While longevity is traditionally seen as a blessing, being old in Hong Kong is painful because there is not enough support, Ng Wai-tung said.

Legislator Peter Cheung Kwok-che said the system should be more flexible so that it could accommodate cases such as that of Ng and Tam. 'You cannot solve human issues with bureaucracy,' Cheung said.

Ng also has Alzheimer's disease, but he is determined that he and his wife will stay together. 'No, I won't go to the home. No way. Not if my wife is here, still waiting,' he said. Lam was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 2007, two years before her husband's diagnosis. She was bedridden and unable to speak when the South China Morning Post visited the couple's home in North Point on Thursday.

The couple's daughter, Ng Siu-mei, 59, is distraught at the thought of separating her parents, but admitted she was at her wits' end. 'I am like a single mother - with a one-year-old and a three-year-old. Except single mothers probably get more help from the government,' she said.

'Ageing at home', again advocated in the budget, is impossible for the pair. None of their six other children is financially or physically capable of supporting them long-term.

Ng Siu-mei shoulders much of the burden, but she has been seeking help for depression since 2002.

The family survive on Ng's savings and a disability allowance of about HK$6,000 a month. The social services department said the family was supported by the community care service, but daughter Ng said it was limited and often unavailable because of staff and resource shortages.


Length of waiting list for elderly people's nursing and care-home places. Waiting times are 22 and 33 months respectively