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We must prevent elderly care tragedies

HK Edition | Updated: 2017-06-08 06:50

Barely four months after an elderly man reportedly killed his wife, who had been suffering from dementia, history seems to have repeated itself on Tuesday when an 80-year-old man allegedly choked his chronically ill wife to death. The man had been caring for his wife for years. Such tragedies always elicit condemnation about Hong Kong's skewed priorities, provoking the usual question as to why, with all our riches, do we still fail to provide adequate care for our elderly. These tragedies involving chronically ill people and their families, who took extreme measures to end the suffering of a chronically ill elderly member, should be on our collective conscience. They should also prompt us to take bold, positive action.

Disturbingly, if we are to go by the facts and statistics as cited by our leading experts, the picture they paint of the current state of our existing and near-term provisions in serving the elderly is not encouraging. Law Chi-kwong,chairman of the Community Care Fund, has said that the proportion of people aged 85 or above would grow from 2.2 percent in 2014 to 10.1 percent by 2064. He called this "not sustainable and basically impossible" for projected services to cope with.

To reduce the need for care homes for the elderly, the government should find ways to improve the health of elderly people. Presently, the Department of Health has an elderly care center in each of the city's 18 districts, offering free body checks and disease prevention services. But they can serve only 54,000 people out of an elderly population of more than 1 million. Expanding such services would certainly be a move in the right direction.

It's estimated that we would have to build 47 to 48 care homes with 100 places each just to meet the annual increase in demand by 2041, not to mention the possibility of extremely long queues that would have developed by this time. But there are other things we can do to alleviate the situation.

With this urgent need facing us, clearly more drastic action is needed. It is time we consider building elderly care centers on ecologically less valuable sites on the periphery of country parks. But more hardware alone is not the answer to the complex problem of family tragedies. Feeling trapped, depressed and helpless can easily push over-stressed caregivers over the edge.

To make up for our shortfall in caregivers, we must open our doors to the recruitment of foreign workers with the appropriate training. This issue has long been a bone of contention with certain labor unionists, who stubbornly resist the idea.

It must be remembered that the caregiver to a chronically ill family member may become depressed over time and be caught up in a vicious spiral when they are stuck at home all the time, caring for their loved ones. Being vulnerable human beings, they need time to reset, recharge their batteries and have a normal life while knowing their loved ones are safe and being looked after by someone else.

This is where social workers and non-government organizations can significantly help alleviate the problem as part of government's "Ageing in Place" objective - the key element being to integrate all citizens into a caring community. This is vital so no one feels isolated. Under this objective, some home help relief measures might be arranged, even on short-term basis, but these could prove to be life savers.

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