My Take

Much more must be done for Hong Kong's elderly

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 1:41am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 August, 2015, 1:42am

With two tragedies involving the elderly barely three weeks apart, attention is again drawn to the wholly inadequate care and welfare for the aged in Hong Kong.

Last month, a wheelchair-bound man, 84, is suspected to have starved to death. Last week, an elderly man set his paralysed wife on fire in a bid to "end her suffering". These incidents may be the tip of an iceberg.

Our welfare system for the elderly and infirm is at developing-world levels - by design. It is not that we lack the resources, but that many people, from our officials to the business elite and the middle class, believe the old and weak don't deserve adequate support beyond subsistence.

Because of the unwillingness of successive governments, from the colonial era to the post-1997 handover period, to provide sufficient social safety nets, the comprehensive social security assistance (CSSA) scheme has become the primary failsafe for the desperate. And desperate many of these elderly really are!

According to a 2012 government survey, the median income of a retired person is just HK$2,000, compared to HK$11,000 for people who have not retired.

Despite public prejudices about dependency and laziness, our elderly are actually too proud - rather than too eager - to apply for CSSA: since the handover, an average of just 16 per cent of people aged at or above 60 accepts CSSA assistance.

No wonder so many old people are doing back-breaking labour.

It has been a declared goal of the government to encourage families to take care of their elderly, promoting Confucian filial piety when it suits their purpose. The government, for example, creates incentives for families with elderly to live together - in tiny public housing units - by assessing the earnings and assets of the entire household. If you don't want to or can't care for or live with your ageing parents, you have to sign the so-called "bad son statement".

The introduction by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying of a flat-rate old age living allowance of HK$2,200, separate from the CSSA, is a laudable breakthrough. It may still be too little, but it makes a big difference if you are earning HK$3,000 a month. It's not too late to enhance elderly care and welfare to developed-world standards.