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Ageing society

Shenzhen care homes prove grass is greener on other side of the fence, but 37,000 of Hong Kong’s elderly are far from convinced

Just 180 seniors have opted to take advantage of government scheme offering places in facilities in mainland China – despite them coming with fresh air, gardens and plenty of room

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 6:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 July, 2018, 11:49pm

More than 37,000 elderly people are waiting for a subsidised place in one of Hong Kong’s residential care homes – and not even the lure of gardens, fresh air, and six times more living space, is enough to convince the majority of them to consider a different option.

Four years after the government launched the Pilot Residential Care Services Scheme in Guangdong offering 400 places at facilities in mainland China, just 180 seniors have taken advantage of the arrangement, skipping a three-year waiting period for a place in Hong Kong in the process.

The homes, in Shenzhen and Zhaoqing, sit in stark contrast to their space-starved counterparts across the border in the world’s least affordable housing market.

A garden, a rooftop with plenty of space to watch the world go by, and about 400 square feet per person – in Hong Kong care homes are required to provide a minimum of 70 square feet for each resident.

“The room in Hong Kong is much smaller,” said Wong Shui-yiu, an 83-year-old living in Yee Hong Heights in Shenzhen. “Here the air is so good with this garden. It feels like a fairyland.”

Wong has lived at the facility, which is operated by Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation in Shenzhen and funded by Hong Kong Jockey Club, for five months, after previously staying in a nursing home in Tai Po following kidney surgery.

The senior, who needs a wheelchair to get around, is sharing a 400 sq ft room with three other people.

“Such a room could have accommodated seven people back in Hong Kong,” she said.

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Before moving to mainland China, Wong lived with her eldest daughter’s family ­– her husband and his mother.

She said she liked having her privacy, despite it meaning less time seeing her family, although she has “a mobile phone and WeChat” so they can stay in touch.

One of Wong’s roommates is 75-year-old Law Ngan-lei.

With no children, Law said it had been an easy decision for her and her late husband to move to Shenzhen after she hurt her back and needed a walking frame two years ago .

“The queue [for places] is too long in Hong Kong,” she said.

That queue is only likely to get longer as the city struggles to cope with a rapidly ageing population.

People aged 65 and over are expected to make up 31 per cent of Hong Kong’s residents in 20 years’ time.

However, there are issues to living across the border, most notably surrounding medication, transport, and the government’s Old Age Living Allowance, which residents in mainland China are not eligible for.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had earlier said the Greater Bay Area national development plan – to turn Hong Kong, Macau and other nine mainland Chinese cities into an economic powerhouse – could provide opportunities for Hongkongers to look for care facilities for the elderly, alongside with flats and schools, outside their own crowded city.

Yet, professionals said making allowances applicable across the border, and medical care, were crucial for that to happen.

“Many Hongkongers are not that confident with the mainland medication,” said Phyllis Chau Wai-ping, senior manager of the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation. “They prefer going back to Hong Kong.”

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To take care of their needs, Yee Hong Heights runs a shuttle bus service to Hong Kong’s public hospitals. In the case of Wong, she has to make the trip to North District Hospital in Sheung Shui four times a month.

However, in the case of an emergency after 9pm, when Sha Tau Kok border is closed, the only hospital available to residents is in mainland China.

Chau called on the government to extend another pilot scheme for the use of the Elderly Health Care Voucher, which at the moment can only be used at the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital.

“Extending the application to people’s hospitals in the mainland would be a great help,” she said, adding that cross-border transport for the Old Age Living Allowance should be introduced as well.

Since 2014, the government has allowed Hongkongers who are living in Guangdong to receive the Old Age Allowance, and Comprehensive Social Security Assistance, but not a living allowance, which is valued between HK$2,600 (US$330) to HK$3,485.

Dr Lam Ching-choi, who is an executive councillor and chairman of the Elderly Commission, agreed that making allowances applicable across the border is something that should be considered in the Greater Bay Area.

“We are talking about fostering the flow of people and goods within the bay area,” he said. “If the policies are not interlinked, we are defeating ourselves.”

However, he believes the government has a “moral responsibility” to monitor the medical service adopted with the health care voucher, which means there would be barriers to extending the use of vouchers among the mainland Chinese hospitals.