Ageing society

Domestic helper subsidy ‘seriously considered’ for low-income elderly singles in Hong Kong

Government may launch a pilot scheme to study feasibility amid overwhelming demand for care services and lack of space for centres

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 November, 2017, 7:03pm

Elderly Hong Kong residents who are living alone in public rental flats could receive subsidies to hire a domestic helper under a plan being “seriously considered” by the government amid a rapidly ageing population, the Post has learned.

Authorities are also studying the feasibility of using land leases to force the city’s developers to include elderly care facilities in their projects.

The possibility of the groundbreaking subsidy plan was revealed by Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-kwong in a wide-ranging interview with the Post, in which he offered directions to address the problems triggered by the city’s greying population. By 2050, one in seven Hongkongers will be aged 80 or above.

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Domestic helpers are expected to play a bigger role in elderly care as the land-scarce city struggles to expand the number of community day care centres and nursing homes amid overwhelming demand.

Official statistics show that 9.7 per cent of elderly singles living alone in the city hired a domestic helper last year, a big jump from 5.2 per cent in 2005. In 1995, the figure was 2.5 per cent.

“There have been suggestions that we can actually subsidise people to hire domestic helpers [for elderly care],” Law said. “This is something we will seriously consider but we have made no decision yet.”

Law, formerly a social policy scholar at the University of Hong Kong, said rather than financial difficulties as a barrier for some low-income families to hire domestic helpers, the biggest problem was actually their ability to offer these workers a reasonable form of accommodation. In Hong Kong, this is a legal requirement for employers.

Law said that the scheme could target elderly residents living alone in public rental flats which they had previously shared with family members who had moved out.

As of March this year, some 91,700 elderly tenants were living alone in public rental housing.

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When asked how the government could ensure public money would not be abused under the plan, Law said there would first be a pilot scheme. He added that he was confident the pilot could happen within the five-year term of the current administration.

“All these debates are necessary but you will never come to a conclusion until you have evidence [from a pilot plan],” he said.

Law said he hoped the elderly would enjoy greater flexibility under the scheme. One direction he suggested was allowing users to decide how to spend their community care service vouchers – whether to buy services, hire a domestic helper or cash these in as an allowance for their carers.

Law said the government would also have to come up with a more reasonable package of community care services for the elderly following the evaluations of different pilot schemes.

“These are the things on the chessboard that we have to consider how to put together,” he added.

In her maiden policy address on October 11, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor introduced a new initiative to enhance elderly care training for domestic helpers.

The need to improve care for the elderly is urgent

Dr Lam Ching-choi, an executive councillor and chairman of the Elderly Commission, a government advisory, said the proposed subsidy measure would help ease the shortage of community care services, some of which had an average waiting period of up to 11 months.

Lam said he saw limited room for abuse of the scheme if only a small part of the value of a community care service voucher could be used to hire a helper. The total value of vouchers ranges from HK$3,000 to HK$7,000.

Even if the scheme was expanded to include bigger families, there would be no issue as users would be required to co-pay to hire helpers, Lam said.

Tong Choi-ying, programme director of elderly care at the Christian Family Service Centre, said she hoped that elderly residents who were being cared for by family members would also be eligible for the subsidy.

“It is understandable for the government to reach out to those living by themselves first, but they should also recognise the burden on the carers,” she said.

Similar subsidies are given by authorities in Singapore and Taiwan for families to hire helpers for elderly care.