Hong Kong elderly require better health and welfare care, not prison time
The surge in shoplifting cases among the aged reflects a rapidly greying population and, with many offenders showing early signs of dementia, the problem needs to be addressed
If crime rates and trends are indicative of social ills, Hong Kong has every reason to be concerned with a 270 per cent increase in shoplifting among elderly people.
Although the numbers, up from 445 arrests in 2001 to 1,650 in 2016, are still relatively small for a city with a population of 7 million, they say something about our rapidly ageing society.
The problem was put into context in a recent South China Morning Post report. Today, about one in four shoplifters is aged 61 or above, compared to one in 16 some 17 years ago.
It can be argued that geriatric crime rates will become more significant as the elderly population expands. Be that as it may, it raises the question of whether we are fully aware of the implications and the actions needed to make us better prepared for the challenges that arise.
Of particular concern are cases that stemmed from illnesses. The Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention noticed that some elderly offenders showed early signs of dementia.
Ah Ying was an example. The 69-year-old was arrested for stealing a mosquito repellent from a supermarket more than a month ago but said she had no idea she did it. It was the second time for her to be arrested for shoplifting in the same supermarket.
Ah Ying was lucky to be given help from Project Hope, a joint programme by the society and police to rehabilitate elderly petty criminals. But with some 134,000 dementia patients in the city, it is unsurprising if some of them walk away without paying for their shopping.
The situation may well intensify if it is not addressed properly. The implications for businesses, law enforcement and social welfare agencies cannot be ignored.
Hong Kong is not alone in grappling with the issues arising from an ageing population. In Japan, the number of arrested elderly has risen fivefold in the past 20 years.
They accounted for shoplifting more than teenagers, with some deliberately breaking the law to seek a better lifestyle in jail. Such a phenomenon may sound incredible to our city.
But, as we reported earlier, Ah Lee, a 73-year-old repeat shoplifter, saw jail as a comfortable break from his routine, adding he felt proud that he could sometimes get away with stealing.
That is not to say our elderly citizens are on a crime spree, even though geriatric crime has been portrayed as worsening by the media the world over.
We need more detailed research to ascertain how poverty and illnesses are shaping crime rates and trends among the elderly. The proportion aged 65 or older increased from 12 per cent of the population in 2006 to a new high of 16 per cent last year. By 2041, almost one in three will be elderly.
We certainly do not want to see our senior citizens having to spend their life in prison for crimes that can be prevented with better health care and welfare protection.