The plight of an elderly couple who are struggling to stay together exposes serious glitches and shortages in the care-home system that need to be tackled, said legislators who visited the pair yesterday.
The welfare chief meanwhile said the government's approach was to focus on 'ageing in place' - letting the elderly live out their retirement at home and in the community.
The dilemma of 100-year-old Ng King-yin and 95-year-old Lam Sau-king came to light when the South China Morning Post reported on Monday that Ng had been offered a place in a regular care home after a two-year wait. Meanwhile, his wife of 70 years had become ineligible because of her worsening health and must wait longer for a nursing-home place.
Lam is bedridden with Alzheimer's disease and Ng refuses to move without his spouse.
The couple's case illustrates the rigid bureaucracy of the queue for places in homes for the elderly and the shortage of places.
They have since received attention from other media, legislators and the public.
'Their case is urgent as both of them are very advanced in age,' legislator Ronny Tong Ka-wah said. 'We hope to help them secure places together in a subsidised home as soon as possible.'
Tong, along with fellow legislators Peter Cheung Kwok-che and Wong Sing-chi, said they would request a meeting with Secretary of Labour and Welfare Matthew Cheung Kin-chung. They would also bring up the issue of provision of homes for the elderly for discussion in the Legislative Council.
Matthew Cheung, speaking on radio, said that regardless of the number of homes for the elderly built and the number of places the government subsidised, supply could never meet demand. One in eight Hongkongers is over 65; in 20 years, that ratio is expected to rise to one in four.
Cheung said many elderly people were healthy and had no need of a place in a nursing home, so the government would work on providing more support to help them age at home and in the community.
He expressed concern for Ng and Lam, and said frontline workers from the Social Welfare Department would follow up on the case. But he added that it would be difficult to find immediate home places for them together, because of their different needs and their wish to be placed at a specific home.
Social worker Ng Wai-tung, of the Society for Community Organisation, said the government's approach was not working well.
'There are many cases where 'ageing in place' does not work - and this one is only one of many,' he said. The elderly couple's 59-year-old daughter, who has been their sole caretaker for 11 years, is receiving treatment for depression.
Ng Wai-tung criticised the government for using the 'ageing in place' approach to dodge responsibility for dealing with shortages and other problems at homes for the elderly.
Health-sector legislator Dr Joseph Lee Kok-long said 'ageing in place' was the inevitable future, but government talk should also be accompanied by action, such as comprehensive measures to set up elderly-friendly communities to allow the aged to live safely and happily.
In its seven-year tenure the administration had improved services for the elderly and added new ones, but had taken few new steps to combat Hong Kong's ageing-population problem, Peter Cheung said.
'There is now an enhanced home-care service, providing physiotherapy exercises for the elderly at home,' he said. 'And the government has also started to improve certain homes for the elderly so that they will be able to accept residents with different nursing needs. '[These are] small improvements, but there has been nothing significant,' he said.
The government last week pledged to add 2,600 places in homes for the elderly by 2015. There are 21,283 people waiting for regular care-home places and 6,575 for nursing-home places.
The number of elderly Hongkongers who die each year waiting for a place in a care home or nursing home