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Health and wellness

Criminals or victims? Most elderly Hongkongers caught for petty crimes showed signs of dementia

Study finds many apprehended for shoplifting were not even aware they had failed to pay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 8:39pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2018, 10:10pm

More than two-thirds of elderly Hongkongers caught for petty crimes showed signs of dementia in a study of 51 cases by a local welfare group.

The research, released on Sunday by the Society of Rehabilitation and Crime Prevention, found shoplifting and assault were the most common reasons for arrest.

About 80 per cent of those apprehended were first-time offenders.

Poverty was not a key factor. Only two of the interviewees indicated they had problems making ends meet.

The study covered 51 elderly Hongkongers previously placed in a pilot rehabilitation scheme named Project Hope. The scheme was launched in 2016 with the New Territories South police district to help offenders in the area.

Chan Wai-shing, a social worker with the society, said: “We found many of the cases were only petty crimes. Shoplifters were sometimes simply unaware they had not paid.

“Subsequent checks found many of them – more than 66 per cent – showed signs of cognitive problems.”

Chan said the stress of being accused of a crime often further impacted their health.

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“They feel guilty and do not understand the legal procedures, or simply forget what they are required to do. In some cases, this triggers emotional disorders,” Chan said.

Police figures show the number of elderly Hongkongers running into trouble with the law has risen steadily since 2015. The figure stood at 2,391 that year before reaching 2,511 in 2016 and 2,604 last year. In the first half of 2018, the number arrested was 1,128. Shoplifting was the most common cause.

Dr Victor Lui Wing-cheong, a specialist in psychiatry, said dementia affected memory and other mental abilities, and might cause confused behaviour.

“In some cases, the patients do not always understand what the right thing to do is,” Lui said. “I am not saying dementia makes the elderly shoplift, but as our population ages, this problem needs more attention.”

He cited a 2015 study in the United States which found 8.5 per cent of dementia patients had a history of criminal behaviour.

Ah Ying, 69, was arrested for suspected shoplifting earlier this year. She left a supermarket without paying for some mosquito repellent.

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“I walked out and a manager chased and caught me. I was unaware I had not paid. They called police and I was eventually charged,” she said. “I was so scared and felt very guilty. I feared it would affect my children and grandchildren if their friends knew their mother or grandmother had been arrested.”

Her case was heard in court in August, and Ah Ying was acquitted. Elizabeth Yau Tsz-yan, a social worker who followed the case, said the elderly woman was exonerated based on reliable witness evidence.

Ah Ying had been seeing a doctor for depression prior to the incident. She was eventually found to be displaying early signs of dementia after the society took up her case and referred her to a psychiatrist.