Why Hong Kong is no place to grow old

Yonden Lhatoo contemplates how the city has failed its elderly population after a chance encounter with a hyperaggressive senior citizen

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 January, 2016, 8:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

Coming out of the turnstile at Central MTR station the other day, I accidentally bumped into someone.

It happens a dozen times a day to anyone trying to navigate a safe passage through the crowds on the concourse at rush hour, so imagine my surprise when I felt a feeble punch and an elbow jab in my side.

I looked down, two feet below, to see a little old lady glaring up at me over the top of her spectacles. She had her fists cocked and looked ready for round two in this totally unprovoked, one-sided confrontation that I couldn’t believe was happening.

I offered a bewildered apology in English and Cantonese, which had no effect whatsoever on her, and walked away.

With granny adopting that intimidating Mixed Martial Arts fighter’s stance, I wasn’t about to cause a scene in the middle of the train station. I would have looked ridiculous anyway, being beaten up by someone less than half my size and old enough to be my mum.

Where was all that anger and aggression coming from, I asked myself, as I beat a hasty retreat from the battlefield. After all, considering what my own mother is like, aren’t elderly people supposed to be gentle and wise peacemakers in their twilight years?

I guess Hong Kong is different, and if our senior citizens are walking around with hair-trigger tempers, they have plenty of reason for it.

We have well over a million people aged 65 and above, and at the rate we’re going, with one of the world’s lowest birth rates, that demographic will be the highest in Asia by 2050 at 42 per cent.

Break that down further, and about 4.5 per cent of the current population – 326,000 people – is aged 80 or above. This will more than double, to 696,700, by 2035 and hit nearly a million by 2041.

Putting it simply and bluntly, we have a hell of a lot of senior citizens out there and myriad problems involving them, some of which we won’t even acknowledge, let alone try to solve.

For example, one out of every 10 people aged above 65 suffers from dementia, and it’s one in three among those aged 80 or above. But our government does not subsidise dementia treatment, which cost an estimated US$3.2 billion last year.

Heck, we can’t even agree on a universal pension scheme for our senior citizens. A paltry HK$3,230 a month for everyone, regardless of rich and poor, will be unsustainable, according to the scrooges in the government.

Scores of academics have done the research to counter that it’s totally doable in a city that has the highest number of Rolls-Royces per capita, but officials have resorted to scaremongering with dire warnings of massive tax increases to pay for the extra costs.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of elderly people who need help have to spend years on the waiting list for subsidised care homes. And they’re nothing like those sun-kissed, sugar-coated retirement communities in Florida.

I look at so many of our senior citizens – unable to get a seat on the train, hanging around in shopping malls for free air conditioning in the summer heat, playing Chinese chess under footbridges to pass the time, and scrounging for scraps from rubbish bins to eke out a living when they should be enjoying their twilight years – and I don’t think I want to be here when I reach that age.

But I have options, something that many Hongkongers don’t. This is their home, for good or bad.

Robert Browning once wrote: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.” Hong Kong is not a good place for that kind of romantic sentiment.

So all I can do, while I’m still here, is show a little patience and understanding, even when being assaulted by hyperaggressive old ladies.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post