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Ageing society

Expand subsidy plan for domestic helpers to include more low-income elderly Hongkongers, officials urged

Commission chairman says scheme, if adopted, should cater to elderly couples and not just singles, as caring for old folk can be tough on family members

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 12:41pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 November, 2017, 10:18pm

Even if they are not living alone, low-income Hong Kong residents over the age of 65 should also be given subsidies to hire a domestic helper, as caring for the elderly can be tough on family members, the chairman of the Elderly Commission said on Wednesday.

Dr Lam Ching-choi was referring to a possible government scheme that would subsidise the cost of hiring a domestic helper for elderly residents living alone in public rental flats.

Such a scheme, if implemented, should be extended to elderly couples or two old people living together, Lam said on a radio programme.

“Two elderly people [living together], I think, is acceptable. They sometimes have a tough time,” he said.

Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr Law Chi-Kwong told the Post he was considering the subsidy scheme for elderly singles, and spoke of how the city could support its rapidly-ageing population.

Hong Kong residents aged 65 or older are likely to make up close to one-third of the population in 2036. By 2050, one in seven residents would be aged 80 and above.

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Lam, in asking for the scheme to be broadened, pointed to recent tragedies where elderly folk were harmed by the family members caring for them.

Last month, a 34-year-old man jumped from his flat after allegedly killing his 77-year-old mother, who had chronic health issues. In June, an 80-year-old Hong Kong man was arrested on suspicion of killing his 76-year-old chronically ill, disabled wife, in a bid to end her suffering.

Lam said the government could dispense the caregiving subsidy through community care service vouchers. Recipients can use these to purchase various social services, such as elderly day care. The value of the vouchers ranges from HK$3,000 to HK$8,000.

But the government would also need to see if flats where the elderly live were big enough to accommodate a domestic helper. Employers in Hong Kong are legally required to offer their helpers a reasonable form of accommodation.

Social worker Yuen Shuk-yan agreed with using the vouchers to dispense the caregiving subsidy to recipients, but asked for more caregiving solutions for when domestic helpers went on leave.

Teresa Liu Tsui-lan, managing director of Technic Employment Services Centre Ltd, said other government departments would have to tweak their policies for the caregiving subsidy scheme to work.

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“The Immigration Department, for example, should loosen the means test for households to hire a foreign maid.

“Currently, you need an annual income of at least HK$180,000 and bank savings of at least HK $300,000 … low-income elderly people might not meet that criteria,” Liu said.

Domestic helpers are expected to play an increasingly prominent role in the city’s overstrained elderly care system, where the average waiting period for community services is up to 11 months.

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.

In the interview, Law said the city would need an additional 240,000 domestic workers in the next three decades. But if the mainland further opened its doors to Filipino helpers and offered higher wages – reportedly four times the minimum wage for domestic helpers in Hong Kong – the city could see an exodus of half its 190,000 helpers, Law estimated.

The minister earlier said it was only a matter of time before Hong Kong imported workers to tackle its shortage of carers for the elderly, even after raising salaries to attract local jobseekers.

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In her policy address last month, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor pledged to explore the possibility of bringing in non-locals for the subsidised elderly nursing care sector.

On Wednesday, Dr Lam Ching-choi, who is also an executive councillor advising the city’s leader, dismissed concerns that the subsidy scheme would result in competition for domestic workers and nursing care workers.

“Given the ageing population, we might easily need 200,000 to 300,000 more foreign domestic helpers. Imported labour [for nursing care], we hope, will only be a small number … around a few thousand people.”