Ageing society

Hong Kong’s elderly shoplifters: a cry for help that reveals mental health gap

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 10:16am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 May, 2018, 10:16am

I am writing to respond to the article, “Dementia, poverty or a cry for attention? Shoplifting cases among Hong Kong’s elderly on the rise” (May 1).

A study by the Post found that the number of cases of elderly people shoplifting in Hong Kong’s chain stores, such as supermarkets or personal care product retailers, has soared by more than 270 per cent since 2001. Today, nearly one in four shoplifters is aged 61 or above, compared to one in 16 about 17 years ago. 

Usually, these are cases of only petty crime, because the aged shoplifter did not pick up valuable or luxury products. For instance, an elderly woman stole a bottle of mosquito repellent. This appears to show the elderly may be shoplifting not because they are poor or need that item.

Rather, investigations revealed that most of the offenders had symptoms of dementia or other mental issues. They may also just be feeling a lack of care and support.

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Dementia affects memory and the mental abilities of the elderly, and leads to confused behaviour. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the common forms of dementia. Elderly people who steal might have forgotten about the deed or didn’t even realise they were doing it.

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Society should therefore focus on the root of the problem, which is dementia among the elderly and gaps in mental health care. Project Hope, run jointly by the Hong Kong police and the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, seeks to address the problem, but this is not enough.

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Since people have to wait very long to be treated for mental health problems in public hospitals, and elderly people living in public housing cannot afford to seek help in private hospitals, they often do not receive care and treatment from professional psychiatrists. Thus, the government should hire more psychiatrists for the elderly and reduce the waiting time for treatment in public hospitals.

Ensuring proper overall health care for our elderly is a duty for the community.

Ivan Tsoi, Tseung Kwan O