Unscrupulous firms' substandard emergency services put elderly at risk

Albert Cheng says the government must crack down on dodgy firms that trick old people into joining substandard home security services

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 3:30am

The Personal Emergency Link Service has been providing its guardian angel role for elderly people who live alone since it was set up by the Senior Citizen Home Safety Association 16 years ago.

Since its establishment in 1996, the government has been subsidising qualified senior citizens to install panic buttons linked directly to the association in their homes with the support of the Social Services Department, the Housing Authority and the Housing Society.

Hong Kong's rapidly ageing population has created a critical demand for such safety devices. Over the past three years alone, the government has indirectly subsidised the service suppliers to the tune of over HK$100 million.

Unfortunately, this commendable government assistance programme has also attracted unscrupulous people out to make a fast buck. In one case, an elderly woman in Tin Shui Wai registered to install the emergency alarm service with one company but was tricked into buying the service from another company.

When she signed up for the service with the first company, the agreed monthly payment was HK$100 after the device was installed on June 1 this year.

A few days before the installation, the woman received a phone call from another company, which she thought was the one she had registered with. This company said the installation had to be done on that day, to which she agreed.

She only found out she had been tricked on June 1 when the original company came to install the bell. She had no choice but to keep the installed bell, albeit reluctantly.

One day when she requested assistance from the service company, she got no satisfactory response. She also found that the volume of the alarm bell was inconsistent and that the service centre was not regularly manned.

When she asked to terminate the contract, the company demanded she pay a penalty of HK$450.

Her case was one of hundreds of complaints received by the association in the past 12 months regarding suspected misleading sales of emergency alarm services to elderly customers.

Many of the complaints were raised by concerned family members or social workers.

The fact that the government did not assume tighter control and supervision when promoting this policy has inadvertently created this messy situation.

To better understand the root of the problem, we have to go back to 1996. That year, as Hong Kong was gripped by a severe cold snap, about 400 elderly people living alone were admitted to hospital, more than 100 of whom died of complications arising from the cold weather.

The tragedies, naturally, were a matter of huge public concern. I immediately started a campaign to provide the safety alarm service to elderly people, especially those who lived alone.

The service includes a customised alarm device that is supported by a manned, round-the-clock personal emergency link for the elderly who require urgent assistance.

Subscribers also have the use of the Elder Ring Hotline, operated by social workers and trained volunteers, to seek general information, advice and assistance, or just to talk to someone about problems.

I, together with a group of passionate individuals and former legislator Dr Law Chi-kwong, subsequently formed the Senior Citizen Home Safety Association to provide reliable emergency home services to elderly living alone.

The association has always operated as a social enterprise. It's a not-for-profit, self-financing charity dedicated to improving the quality of life for the elderly through appropriate technology.

While self-financing its operations, the association receives additional funds from the Social Welfare Department to subsidise elderly customers who are on government assistance and those with chronic illnesses who live alone. In addition to income received from services, the association seeks public and corporate donations to provide free services to the needy elderly through the establishment of the Personal Emergency Link Charitable Fund.

The services provided by the association have received wide recognition and support from the community.

The association is a social enterprise with the sole purpose of offering the best services to the elderly. It has no intention to monopolise the emergency alarm service market. It welcomes all competitors who are committed to providing good products and services.

When it comes to providing home emergency services to the elderly, it's not a matter of money - in some circumstances it can be a matter of life and death. The government must not allow the pursuit of profits to be the driving force in this business.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. [email protected]