How an ageing society can be a Hong Kong success story – if it is planned for carefully and creatively
Bernard Chan says the government is already taking steps to accommodate Hong Kong’s ageing population, but there are opportunities for the private sector, too
One of the biggest changes Hong Kong is facing is the ageing of our society. It is a very gradual process. But, if you could fast-forward 20 years, you would notice the difference: the number of people aged over 65 would have gone from 17 per cent of Hong Kong’s population to 31 per cent.
If you visit Japan, where over-65s are already 25 per cent of the population, you get a glimpse of this future. Japan’s experience shows that a developed society can adjust.
In Hong Kong, the government has been discussing the ageing population as a social and financial issue for many years. The current administration is focusing on new approaches to elderly care services. Officials are thinking ahead about how technology, building design and urban planning will need to change to meet the needs of an older community.
For example, new public rental housing is being designed with features like wider corridors and doors, and non-slip floors. Older blocks are being modified where possible. One of the intentions is to allow older tenants to stay in their flats as they age.
Watch: Can Hong Kong’s elderly afford quality lifetime rental flats?
On several estates, the Housing Society has built special integrated housing for the elderly, with recreation, health and care facilities, including gyms and arts rooms.
The government now subsidises older people’s transport so they pay just HK$2 for most MTR and bus trips. This makes good sense – it encourages the elderly to be active and stay in contact with family and friends.
The government is also implementing a programme to ensure barrier-free access on public walkways and to install staircase lifts, elevators and other systems at public housing estates and other areas. It is also covering walkways and putting more seating into public facilities like markets.
These measures are just a start. They are mostly focused on areas under government responsibility or regulation – such as land use, public housing, public transport and public space. Private-sector spaces like shopping malls are less user-friendly to the elderly; they lack seating, for example. In time, businesses should find it makes commercial sense to be elderly-friendly, as they have with offering facilities for breastfeeding mothers.
Watch: Yoga keeps the elderly fit and flexible
This means more proactive health management and monitoring among the elderly. And it means greater use of technology in assertive and tele-health devices that reduce manpower needs and coordinate welfare, health and other functions.
However, the government can only do so much. Forecasts say we could have over a million people aged over 80 by 2066, but we have no idea what sort of changes will take place in technology, health care and our urban environment in that time.
Meeting our ageing society’s day-to-day needs will largely come down to innovators and entrepreneurs.
At the research level, the science and technology parks are allocating space to this subject, and Chinese University is doing some very interesting research into regenerative medicine.
Ultimately, the business sector will deliver competitive and commercially viable goods and services to meet the needs of older consumers.
Around 18 months ago, I visited an exhibition in Japan about new approaches to elderly care. There were new applications for robotic and smart technology in such areas as emergency communications, mobility devices like wheelchairs, and delivery systems for medication or groceries. There was a robot that teaches old people yoga. There were even luxuries, like cosmetics, for the aged.
Senior citizens of the future will be more educated and wealthier than in the past. They will have higher expectations of service choice and quality. Forward-looking Hong Kong entrepreneurs and investors can anticipate big opportunities in “grey” or “silver” products, from household goods to clothing, travel and lifestyle services.
We hear about the ageing population as a challenge, a problem or even a threat.
But what we are talking about is people living longer because they are healthier. The human race has made great achievements in food supply and nutrition, in sanitation and security, in fighting disease and in making breakthroughs in medicine. In just the past century or so, we have on average extended our life expectancy by several decades.
This is not a problem – it is an amazing success story. We can be productive and fulfilled for longer. And a great adjustment is now under way.
Bernard Chan is convenor of Hong Kong’s Executive Council