【明報專訊】AS Hong Kong's population is ageing, the problems facing elderly services are becoming increasingly acute.
Over the past ten years, the population aged above 65 has risen sharply by 36% to 1.16 million, accounting for almost 16% of the entire population. By international standards, Hong Kong is an aged society. As people between 45 and 59 now make up the largest age group in Hong Kong, the elderly population is expected to grow significantly over the next 20 years. Research shows that in 2041, the elderly population will exceed 2.52 million, and the number of people aged 85 or above will rise from 170,000 currently to 510,000. With the "silver tsunami" bearing down on our society, the government and citizens have to make a concerted effort. Though the problem of population ageing is by no means a less acute problem than land and housing, no sector of society seems to have a sense of urgency, let alone making preparations for the ageing population.
Elderly people either go to a nursing home or age in place, both of which require more infrastructure and manpower. But the situation in Hong Kong is truly worrying. Take nursing homes. Over the past ten years, subsidised nursing home places have increased by just 15% to 27,360, while the number of elderly people waiting to be admitted has risen sharply by 56% to 37,911. The demand is such that seven nursing homes have to be built every year in Hong Kong. But in fact just two to three nursing homes are built yearly — the increase in supply is far outstripped by the increase in demand. There is also a serious shortage of manpower in nursing homes. As more than half of the carers are over 50, it is expected that the size of the workforce will have to be quadrupled by 2041.
The shortages of nursing home places and elderly services are the manifestations of the shortages of land and manpower. One way of easing the strain on manpower is by using high technology to enhance efficiency. The government has co-organised the Gerontech and Innovation Expo with non-governmental organisations and has earmarked $1 billion for the establishment of the Innovation and Technology Fund for Application in Elderly and Rehabilitation Care to subsidise organisations providing elderly services' trial use and purchase of technological products. This will help improve the quality of elderly services. The government should simplify the procedures as much as possible and introduce a rental service for such high-tech products, at the same time devoting resources to the encouragement of the research and development of technological products for the elderly. But it should also be said that the crisis facing the elderly services will continue if the shortage of carers is not addressed.
The Elderly Commission has said that the government should improve care services at community level, while some have called for the construction of more day care centres and acceleration of the building of nursing homes. Some groups have even suggested increasing sharply the minimum per-capita area of nursing homes. However, given the limitations of land and manpower, there is nothing the government can do even though it has the money. The government has to import a suitable amount of labour to solve the manpower shortage and increase land supply as soon as possible to build more elderly facilities of all kinds. The elderly crisis will erupt in ten years at the earliest. The problem facing the elderly services, just like the problem of land and housing, will deteriorate if all sectors of society talk emptily about ideals, put self-interest above everything or stick to the old ways.
bear down : to move quickly towards sb/sth in a determined or threatening way
worrying : that makes you worry
earmark : to decide that sth will be used for a particular purpose, or to state that sth will happen to sb/sth in the future