Hong Kong ill prepared to care for middle-class retirees

As the average age of Hongkongers rises, housing for elderly middle-class people is becoming an issue, writes Elaine Yau

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 November, 2012, 11:15am

Retirees Sidney Lam Siu-cheung and Judy Lam Kuan-ieng count themselves lucky. Returning from the United States last year, the couple have managed to secure a home in Cheerful Court in Ngau Tau Kok.

The one-bedroom flat is only about 380 sq ft, but it's bright and airy and fitted throughout with seven alarm buttons that they can use to summon help in case of emergencies.

The Lams paid a lump sum of HK$600,000 to the Hong Kong Housing Society, which manages the development, to live in the flat for the rest of their lives. Although they don't have ownership of the property, they reckon the accompanying medical care and services more than make up for it.

"I don't have any children, so there is no one to pass my assets to. Now I just need to pay HK$1,300 for the management fee and HK$600 in compulsory medical check-up fees every month for the two of us," Sidney Lam says. The 70-year-old is a former manager in the US Treasury Department, and Judy is a former law librarian.

Cheerful Court is one of two Housing Society projects that provide subsidised homes for the middle-class elderly under its Senior Citizen Residences Scheme, and is designed with their needs in mind.

For instance, each tenant is issued a watch which can be used to send distress signals within the premises, and facilities include a clinic, a library and a gym.

"We rented an apartment for HK$8,000 per month at Mei Foo Sun Chuen for a year before we moved here. But we didn't get special services there," Sidney says.

Unfortunately, options such as Cheerful Court are woefully inadequate for the growing number of middle-class elderly in Hong Kong. Overall, census officials estimate the proportion of people aged 65 and above will rise from 13 per cent now to 28 per cent by 2039.

"Most government welfare initiatives are aimed at the grass-roots elderly. The government thinks the middle-class elderly can fend for themselves," says Francis Wong Kwan-wah, a professor in Polytechnic University's department of building and real estate.

"The middle-class elderly are the ones who have paid most taxes but get the fewest benefits from society in their twilight years. They can't get public housing, but with the property prices going sky high now, private housing may be beyond their means."

For the Lams, retiring in Hong Kong still makes sense even though the yawning income gap here came as a shock and living costs are much higher than in Chicago, where they spent more than three decades.

Funds from the sale of their suburban home coupled with some savings should be sufficient to last them through their twilight years.

"We grew up here," Sidney says. "Transport is convenient, whereas we had to drive everywhere in the US. Weather is also severe in Chicago, with heavy snows in winter. Although the high cost of living is a concern, we started saving young to prepare for retirement."

According to the Census and Statistics Department's General Household Survey last year, a middle-class family is defined as one having a monthly household income of between HK$10,000 and HK$40,000.

Government figures show that of the 1.13 million Hongkongers aged 60 or above in 2008, 99,400 (9.2 per cent) have monthly incomes (sources come from financial support from children, old-age allowance, employment earnings, and so on) of HK$10,000 or above

Dr Cheung Moon-wah, an Elderly Commission member who is also the Housing Society's general manager of elderly services, estimates there are now 300,000 middle-class elderly in Hong Kong.

But the society has only two residential projects for senior citizens (the other is Jolly Place in Tseung Kwan O). Because they are heavily subsidised (the society paid nominal fees for the land), each elderly household cannot have assets of more than HK$5 million to qualify for tenancy. Applicants pay HK$300,000 to HK$700,000 to live in a property until they die or become so frail that institutional care is required. But with an annual turnover rate of about 4 per cent, there are more than 300 applicants on the waiting list for the 500 homes.

The society will launch two other elderly tenancy projects in Tin Shui Wai and North Point. These won't be means tested, but Cheung says: "As we paid market prices for the land, the developments would be beyond the means of those with assets of between HK$1.2 million and HK$6 million, who make up a big chunk of the middle-class elderly population."

Applicants can expect to pay HK$3 million just for residency rights. While the government might baulk at waiving the full land premium, Cheung argues officials should consider mixed development models. He cites as an example a Housing Society mixed-use project in Shau Kei Wan to be launched in 2014. Sixty flats in the lower storeys will be earmarked for means tested seniors, and 214 on the upper floors will be sold as private housing. Offspring of elderly tenants will enjoy priority for purchase of the upper flats.

"There are lots of flexible options for the government to consider, like discounted land premium or a mixture of private and subsidised housing," Cheung says.

He also says elderly policy should be included on the agenda of the Long Term Housing Strategy Steering Committee, recently established by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

A Housing Society spokesman says the ideal is to enable people to age in their own homes.

"Before we launched the Senior Citizen Residences Scheme, there was no housing aimed at the elderly besides institutional homes. Many elderly do not want to live in an institutional setting, as they feel abandoned by their families. They want to retire in a place where they feel at home. But it's not about just providing the elderly with a place to live. A host of services and facilities, such as special lifts fitted with seats, are needed to ensure happy and healthy lives for them."

Lung Lor-kwan, 87, seems to have found what she wants at a centre where she can have her own space and still enjoy round-the-clock care by professional staff.

After visiting several homes for the elderly for comparison, she moved to the Hung Hom facility of the Culture Homes chain five years ago.

For HK$12,000 per month she gets a private room, which she has made her own, filling it with potted plants, dolls and colourful handicrafts.

It's more enjoyable than before, when she shared a home with her eldest daughter, she says, as they would sometimes argue.

"You can't expect your daughter-in-law to take care of you 24/7, and a maid has to rest," Lung says. "Here, there are people doing chores for me. I also enjoy the companionship of other elderly people."

Culture Homes director Eva Ngan Lo Suet-chun says the company, which operates three homes in the city, took elderly people's need for personal space into account when designing its centres. Most beds are separated by high partitions, which provide a measure of privacy. Those who want a more homey space can opt for suites that cost from HK$12,000 per month for individuals to HK$17,000 for couples.

Residents requiring additional medical care pay between HK$800 and HK$2,000 extra per month. The homes employ six nurses for every 60 residents, and the bedridden receive round-the-clock care, Ngan says.

With the average age of tenants between 70 and 80, only about 20 per cent are active and healthy enough not to need medical care.

There's another group of elderly that want high-end retirement homes, and the demand for them is equally great, says Culture Homes manager Stephen Chung Ka-shing.

"Some elderly have children living overseas who would rather pay more so their parents can live comfortably," he says.

That's why the chain has invested in a superior seven-storey, 290-bed retirement home in Tuen Mun, scheduled to open in 2015.

The price range will be higher than the chain charges now, Chung says, but the centre is designed for hi-tech living.

"Elderly tenants will be able to control facilities in the room with their iPads. We are also considering installing chairs which will automatically measure blood pressure and oxygen level in the blood."

To Polytechnic University's Wong, part of the solution to housing needs for the elderly lies in designing buildings to accommodate changes in tenants' mobility and agility as they age, such as wheelchair access. Whether in private or public housing, he says, most residential properties simply lack facilities that accommodate the lifestyles of elderly people.

In fact, the needs of the elderly were raised for the first time in the 2008 revision of the Buildings Department's design manual on barrier-free access.

"I am over 50 years old now and have no problem getting out and about. But in 20 years' time, I will probably have difficulty navigating if I still live in my current flat," Wong says.

"A fund should also be set up for existing property owners to retrofit their buildings to install features such as anti-slip flooring and railings. Such outlay is one-off which should not put a big burden on the government."