As Hong Kong's population ages rapidly, government must tackle the dementia time bomb now
Medical science has helped us live longer but has yet to find a way to prevent some of us developing dementia, most often Alzheimer's disease, and becoming progressively disabled in body and mind. As a result, according to experts, one in 10 will succumb after reaching 65, rising to three in 10 in their 80s. Since it is now common for people to live this long, most extended families can expect to experience dementia sooner or later.
Even in a population with a birth rate high enough to maintain a balanced age distribution, that places a heavy responsibility on younger generations - directly as care-givers and care-payers, and indirectly as taxpayers. In a population with a low birth rate that is greying rapidly through a lop-sided age distribution, such as Hong Kong, dementia is therefore a potential social and economic time bomb.
Thanks to years of inaction, we remain unprepared to deal with it. Experts say time is running out. "If we don't start doing something now, it will be too late," says Law Chi-kwong, social work professor at the University of Hong Kong and chairman of the Community Care Fund task force.
Some well-known facts put the warning into perspective. When dementia strikes, the most devoted family needs outside help sooner or later. Current nursing, specialist and intensive care and day-care resources dedicated to dementia patients do not meet demand now, let alone in the future. Conventional nursing facilities are not equipped to deal with dementia and can't meet existing demand anyway.
Despite the lack of preparedness, an elderly services programme plan due out next year does not contain concrete dementia proposals because there are no programmes nor pilot schemes to act as precedents, according to an informed source. That is the point. Dementia has slipped under the radar. There is an urgent need for a strategy to cope with the exponential ageing of society. United Nations recognition of dementia as an important cause of death that puts a heavy burden on national health care systems should have been the government's cue to put a long-term strategy in place years ago.
Globally, increased research and better understanding of the disease are key to coping with an ageing crisis. Since studies have indicated genetic links, genetic and stem-cell research may lead to a breakthrough, in terms of predicting risk at least. But that leaves the government no room for further inaction.