No excuse for not helping the elderly

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


No one can help but feel sorry for the couple, aged 100 and 95, who, after being married for seven decades, may have to separate and live in different old people's homes. The pair are just two of more than 27,000 in the queue for government-subsidised care homes. Many have died waiting. After two years of anxious delay, the good news is that the husband has been offered a place in a regular care home. The bad news is that his younger wife cannot join him because her health has deteriorated and she must wait for a place in a nursing home. The husband's choices are grim - leave his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife behind or wait until one of the 17 homes catering to both regular and nursing care has a place for them.

This is doubtless just one of many heart-rending stories to be told. It reflects as much on our bureaucracy as on the inadequacy of our services for the elderly. At present, the average waiting time for a regular care place is 22 months. The queue for nursing homes is even longer, up to 37 months. Unfortunately not all get what they want. In 2010, 1,823 died waiting for a nursing-home place.

It doesn't take an economist to realise that a generous boost in supply is needed to meet the growing demand; and the demand is expected to increase because of a rapidly ageing population. By 2030, one in four people will be aged 65 or above. Sadly, the additional resources committed by the government on this front are not catching up. In his final budget speech delivered early this month, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced an extra 1,000 subsidised residential care places and other community care services. The increase falls short of the demand from the tens of thousands in the queue.

Sympathy for the couple aside, more proactive steps are needed. The welfare chief, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, and lawmakers have expressed concern over their plight, but more needs to be done.

Hong Kong is arguably not an ideal place for retirement. Moreover, despite a wide range of supporting services for senior citizens, many choose to live on their meagre savings or a token amount of pocket money from their children. Self-reliance remains the philosophy. Over the past decade some who could not afford the high standard of living here have chosen to retire on the mainland; the trend, however, has reversed recently. Soaring prices there have prompted more retirees to return. Regrettably, a co-ordinated approach has yet to be put in place to take better care of our elderly on both sides of the border.

The plight of the couple reflects poorly on Hong Kong's image as an affluent and caring society. There is no reason why our government cannot do more to help.