Doing right for Hong Kong's elderly

Peter Kammerer says society owes its elderly a debt of gratitude, and there's no better way to repay it than by taking care of them

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 2:52am

A public housing estate in Kowloon Bay I pass through on the way to seeing a friend has what is, for me, a disturbing sight. In its wet market area is a shop that sells Indonesian and Philippine groceries that always has a throng of domestic helpers inside. In a city with 310,000 foreign maids, that may not seem unusual, but in a place where hired help should be beyond the financial means of residents, it speaks of something else. A chat with an Indonesian or two confirms what I suspect: elderly parents are being left in the care of helpers by children who don't want to live with them.

It bucks the trend of what I thought was a cornerstone of Chinese society: respect for the elderly. Loving and taking care of parents is central to Confucian teachings. "Loving one's parents is benevolence; respecting one's elders is rightness," the writings say. So to hear that children have got a maid to take care of a tottering mother and occasionally visit her, rather than have her living with them, is surprising, even shocking.

Having had to deal with the obstinacy of my own mother for years, I can sympathise. A fall that landed her in hospital has me looking at options. But her moving in with me barely features; she's in Australia, where culture and a solid social security system encourage independence, for parents and children.

Hong Kong has taught me that such thinking has serious drawbacks. The elderly, for all their stubbornness, offer much from which we can learn, to help us live wiser and better lives. They may not have had as good an education, their jobs may have been lesser, but they have life experience. Moving away from them, making someone unrelated responsible for their needs and speaking to them only when a guilty conscience determines, is to shut the door on a wealth of knowledge.

I realised this the other week when a burst pipe in the building where I live caused taps to run dry. As I was making my way downstairs for bottled water, I asked the nonagenarian couple who live alone next door whether they needed help. No need to stress yourself, they advised - the pipe will be fixed quickly and things will be back to normal. The lifts full of people carrying receptacles of all kinds for filling at a fire hydrant showed that the optimism of my neighbours was not shared. Sure enough, though, it was only an hour before supplies were restored.

But it is not just tapping a fount of wisdom that necessitates us staying close to our parents. Nor should we respect the elderly simply because that's what we wish for ourselves when we are old. Culture plays a large part, but where it does not, there is a good reason to not always put ourselves first. Simply, that older generations gave us all we have today.

They were our war veterans, teachers, doctors, scientists, politicians and every other worker, menial job or otherwise, who helped make this city. Our society should take care of them as best it can. Laws that exist on the mainland and in Singapore that require children to take care of their parents should be introduced in Hong Kong. For those who do not have close relatives, provisions have to be made to ensure their twilight years are comfortable. We owe them that most basic of courtesies.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post