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Ageing society

Dementia, poverty or a cry for attention? Shoplifting cases among Hong Kong’s elderly on the rise

Study finds shoplifting by the elderly three times more likely to happen in 2016 than in 2001, with social welfare experts attributing results to poverty, loneliness and illnesses such as dementia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 1:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 May, 2018, 9:32am

The number of cases of elderly Hong Kong residents caught shoplifting has soared by more than 270 per cent over the past 16 years, a study by the Post has found. 

The rate has also overtaken the city’s ageing trend, with the number of Hongkongers aged 61 or above increasing by only 62.4 per cent in the same period.

Social welfare experts, who attributed the results to poverty, loneliness and illnesses such as dementia, said the finding highlighted that the well-being of the city’s elderly deserved greater attention from the government and society. 

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Frontline social workers providing rehabilitation services also noted a majority of elderly people arrested for petty crimes showed signs of early dementia.

Police reports over the past 16 years showed that despite a drop in the number of shoplifting cases – from 7,201 to 6,971 – annual arrests of people aged 61 or above in such crimes surged by 270.8 per cent, from 445 in 2001 to 1,650 in 2016.

The proportion of seniors involved in the total number of shoplifting cases also rose strikingly from 6.18 per cent in 2001 to 23.7 per cent two years ago.

Adjusted for changes in population size over the period, it was found that shoplifting by the elderly was three times more likely to happen in 2016 compared with 2001.

“There could be a lot of reasons behind the surge – including dementia – but one cannot conclude it is only a result of the ageing trend,” said Professor Paul Yip Siu-fai, who specialises in population research at the University of Hong Kong. 

“The data shows the well-being of seniors in Hong Kong deserves more attention.”

The data shows the well-being of seniors in Hong Kong deserves more attention
Professor Paul Yip, HKU

Shoplifting was the most common offence among seniors – accounting for 44 per cent of total crime cases committed by people in the age group in 2016. 

The surge in the number of elderly shoplifting cases also surpassed that of some age groups. The number of cases involving people aged between 21 and 30 dropped by 33.9 per cent over the past 16 years to 863 in 2016, while the middle-aged – 31 to 60 – remained core offenders with an increase of 31.1 per cent to 3,950 cases.

When it comes to a rising number of elderly people involved in crimes, Hong Kong is not alone. An earlier media report suggested that more seniors in Japan – a fast-greying country with 27.3 per cent of its citizens aged 65 or older – deliberately shoplifted to seek a more stable lifestyle behind bars.

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Peter Cheung Kwok-che from the Hong Kong government’s Commission on Poverty said economic factors could be behind the spike in shoplifting cases among the elderly, but the state of their mental health and their need for stability and attention might also play a role.

“The prisons in Hong Kong may not be as decent as those in Japan ... but that is still better than being homeless – at least they have a stable supply of food and medical care. There are also some lonely seniors who are out to seek attention,” said Cheung, a former lawmaker from the social welfare constituency.

[Prisons are] still better than being homeless – at least they have a stable supply of food and medical care
Peter Cheung, Commission on Poverty 

“These two factors may be less prevalent but should not be ruled out.”

Almost one in three – or 337,400 – elderly people in Hong Kong are living below the poverty line even with a government scheme providing recurrent cash allowances, while the number of seniors living alone has soared significantly by 54.3 per cent over a decade to 152,536 in 2016.

Meanwhile, the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention – a charitable organisation providing rehabilitation services for offenders – pointed to the rise in the number of dementia sufferers among cases it had handled.

Of about 20 elderly petty criminals the society helped in the first quarter of the year through a partnership scheme with police, 16 showed early signs of dementia and most had symptoms of depression.

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“It might be too simplistic to conclude that poverty is the reason behind the shoplifting trend,” said Tom Tse Kei-leung, a supervisor at the society.

“Poverty may have had a hand in this but our frontline experience suggests it is more important to ensure [elderly offenders] would be assisted by social workers, who can help them with referrals for timely diagnosis of dementia.”

The group aims to expand the programme – which currently covers only New Territories South – and help raise awareness among police officers so they would be more skilled in handling such cases. 

Dr Eric Chui Wing-hong, a social work and criminology professor at City University, said the trend of elderly shoplifters was a relatively new issue in Hong Kong that remained unexplored.

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Police did not maintain data of hot spots where such cases have occurred, or the types of items commonly stolen by elderly offenders. Chui said such information would be crucial to help the government and researchers understand the problem.

“The data would be very useful for us to understand the profile of senior offenders and the key factors driving them to shoplift,” Chui said, adding that the issue definitely deserved further study.

“It is saddening to see seniors, who have devoted their whole lives contributing to society, end up taking such risks like this,” he said.