From 'Cardboard Nannies' to 'Fruit Money': Fast-Paced Hong Kong Slow to Adapt to Its Elderly

By Thomson Reuters Foundation 31 October 2018

HONG KONG — At the Tanner Hill apartments in Hong Kong, the residents – all aged 60-plus – are enjoying the ancient Chinese tile game of mahjong along with some bite-sized delicacies, dimsum, at one of the on-site restaurants.

Each of the 588 units comes with wheelchair-height kitchen countertops, an emergency button and a motion sensor that will alert the nurses in the building if it does not detect movement for a prolonged period.

“I feel independent living here. I don’t need a helper to look after me – I feel safe,” said Chun Man-lin, 75, who moved two years ago to Tanner Hill, just a stone’s throw from the shopping hub of Causeway Bay.

However, gerontology experts say, complexes like this are the exception in Hong Kong, not the norm. They warn that the fast-paced, business-focused city is lagging in its efforts to make life easier for its growing army of elderly residents.

From Japan to Britain and Portugal, cities around the world are aging rapidly as authorities struggle to boost birth rates.

One-third of Hong Kong’s population will be 65 or older in two decades, official data shows – up from one-fifth now. Observers say not enough is being done to prepare for this demographic shift.

“Aging in Hong Kong … is still an issue that people put in the background – it’s not mainstream at all,” said Jean Woo, the director of the Jockey Club Institute of Aging at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“Right now the aging issue is still invisible to a lot of people. It is there but they don’t see it – not like other countries,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

‘Cardboard Nannies’

In the shadows of Hong Kong’s famous skyscrapers, a common sight is the grey-haired women – so-called “cardboard nannies” – pushing carts filled with old paper and card that they send to be recycled as they eke out a living.

With sky-high property prices and rising living costs, about of third of those aged above 65 – some 340,000 people – are trapped in poverty, a government report released in 2017 shows.

Authorities provide a monthly living allowance of up to about HK$3,400 ($430) for senior citizens, but that buys so little in this expensive city that it is dubbed “fruit money.”

The elderly are most unhappy about housing, community support, health services and employment, a survey of over 9,500 people led by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust found this year.

Still, there are some bright spots. Hong Kong scored well in areas like transportation – for HK$2, senior citizens can take most public transport to any part of the city.

Its compactness also allows the elderly easy access to shops, clinics, banks and transport networks, with most places located within walking distance.

Woo, who was one of the survey’s researchers, said the biggest barriers to making the Asian financial hub more senior-friendly were a lack of awareness and public debate on the consequences if agiing issues were not addressed.

“Suicides are high among the elderly, including double suicides when the spouse can’t cope by living by themselves,” she said.

People aged over 65 have the highest suicide rates in Hong Kong, with nearly 300 cases in 2016, according to the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention.

Other developed parts of the world have already ramped up efforts to deal with aging, with the global population of people over 60 expected to outnumber children under five for the first time by 2020, according to the World Health Organization.

In Britain, the government this year created a new ministerial post on loneliness, and allocated £20 million ($26 million) to fund efforts to tackle the isolation felt by more than one in 10 people there.

Efficiency over Decency

In her annual policy address this month, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam vowed to boost community care services for the elderly, although her speech largely did not address other challenges as the city ages rapidly.

One government adviser said the authorities had been making adjustments, including ensuring barrier-free access on public walkways and putting wider corridors and non-slip floors in new public rental housing.

“These measures are just a start … The government can only do so much,” Bernard Chan, who sits on Hong Kong’s Executive Council which advises the government on policy, wrote in the South China Morning Post newspaper in June.

“Meeting our aging society’s day-to-day needs will largely come down to innovators and entrepreneurs,” he said.

Projects like Tanner Hill, which was built by the non-governmental Hong Kong Housing Society, is one example where charity groups try to address the need for elderly housing.

It offers a lifelong lease where residents pay a flat fee that is determined by age. For a two-bedroom unit for example, an 85-year-old resident would pay HK$2.94 million and a 60-year-old would pay HK$6.51 million.

“Aging is an indisputable fact and the demand for elderly housing is emerging,” said Daniel Lau from the Hong Kong Housing Society, which also works with the government to improve housing conditions for the city’s poorer seniors.

Making Hong Kong more accepting of its elderly residents, said aging expert Terry Lum, is not only about improving the facilities, and it is not just a job for government.

Changing people’s mindset and how they treat older people are also important, said the professor at the University of Hong Kong.

After living in the United States for 18 years, Lum moved home to Hong Kong in 2011. The first thing he noticed was how Hongkongers quickly became impatient when an older person walked slowly in front of them.

“We are focusing so much on efficiency that sometimes we lose basic decency – everything is being rushed through at a very fast pace,” he said.

“Hong Kong definitely needs to slow down.”