Death of elderly man and son-in-law in Hong Kong's 'city of sadness' a collective failure of society

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 1:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 July, 2015, 1:02am

The community was shocked by yet another family tragedy in Tin Shui Wai, dubbed the "city of sadness" because of the social ills prevalent in the neighbourhood. An 84-year-old wheelchair-bound man was apparently left unattended and starved to death after his caretaker son-in-law, aged 61, suffered a fatal fall days ago inside the public housing unit they lived in. The case only came to light on Sunday when neighbours reported a foul smell. Sympathy and sorrow aside, we have to wonder what more can be done to help the vulnerable in society.

The Social Welfare Department was quick to distance itself from the double tragedy, saying the pair had not been under its care. It is true that the department could not have foreseen such accidents. Also, the family may not be considered to be in need. Unlike many who have to stay in substandard nursing homes, the elderly man was already being taken care of by his son-in-law at home.

That said, it does not mean the government can pass it off as just another misfortune. The chances of elderly citizens suffering from lack of care can be reduced if there are stronger supporting services. As an academic specialising in elderly welfare argued, the plight of the family could have been noticed had a public housing district outreach programme not been scrapped in 2003 because of financial constraints. There is also the personal emergency link service, which provides emergency help at the press of a button to more than 80,000 elderly people living alone at present. Indeed, the outcome could have been different simply if their neighbours had been more alert.

Hong Kong prides itself on being a caring society. Yet there are at least five cases of elderly citizens left unattended at home who have died over the past five years. These incidents always spark shock and debate but little has apparently been done. Our ageing society means the risk of elderly people left unattended will only increase. The latest tragedy is another sad reminder that there is a lot more we can do to prevent this from happening again.