As population grows older, care for Hong Kong's elderly must be made a priority

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 3:17am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 8:58am

The plight of ailing elderly citizens in Hong Kong and on the mainland has been so widely documented that it rarely makes the headlines these days. But the strong public reaction to two recent disturbing reports suggests a lot more needs to be done as we grapple with an ageing society. Last Monday, a deadly blaze burnt down an elderly home in Henan province, killing at least 38 people. The following day came the news of a Hong Kong private nursing home ill-treating vulnerable residents. The two incidents are unrelated but they raise serious questions on rules and monitoring and call for better preparation as the elderly population continues to expand rapidly.

The Hong Kong government has yet to give a full explanation of why the upscale Cambridge Nursing Home in Tai Po has escaped prosecution, despite repeated complaints and warnings over the past five years. Residents were seen queuing naked or half-dressed for showers on an open-air podium surrounded by high-rise buildings. Apparently without self-care ability and wheelchair-bound, they were stripped by staff members before being taken into an indoor shower area. An employee first denied there was such a practice when confronted by the media but the operator later issued an open apology amid a public outcry. The treatment is absolutely unacceptable. Not only were the privacy and dignity of the elderly residents compromised, it raised disturbing questions about government enforcement. The case is now being followed up by the police.

When given the choice between staying at home and in an institution, few people would opt for the latter. But for many who cannot take care of themselves, residential care homes are an inevitable option. While the operation of such premises is regulated by law in Hong Kong, service quality varies. This is not helped by inadequate monitoring and enforcement. The welfare minister said abuse of the elderly would not be tolerated. The government also plans to not renew the licence of the nursing home in question. But it has to ask why tougher action was not taken in the first place.

Similarly, the damage caused by the fire in Henan could have been less severe had more stringent safeguards been applied. According to some reports, staffing is an issue. Given the elderly population is expected to grow rapidly on the mainland and in Hong Kong, providing safe and affordable care for the elderly should be made a priority.