Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Seniors' care tops policy agenda

Secretary for Labour & Welfare Matthew Cheung

The world is rapidly greying and Hong Kong is no exception. Like many developed economies elsewhere, Hong Kong is at the threshold of a large demographic shift as the generation of baby boomers starts to retire.

 

Improvements in health and shrinking fertility rates also add to our rapidly ageing population. The life expectancy at birth in Hong Kong is currently 81.2 years for males and 86.9 years for females, almost the highest in the world. According to the latest population projections released a fortnight ago, these figures will rise to 87 years for males and 92.5 years for females by 2064.

 

There were 1,065,300 people aged 65 or above in Hong Kong as at 2014, meaning one out of seven Hong Kong residents is a senior citizen. These figures will rise to a staggering 2,525,000 in 2044 and 2,582,000 in 2064, translating into a ratio of one in three.

 

The ageing trend is also revealed by the increasing median age of our population, which will rise from 43.7 in 2014 to 53.5 in 2064, excluding foreign domestic helpers.

 

Demographic shift poses challenges

Clearly, this major demographic shift poses a huge challenge for Hong Kong. This is why the current-term government has put elderly care at the top of our policy agenda. We need to make strategic decisions and prepare for a fast-ageing population and, more importantly, to build age-friendly communities so that our senior citizens can enjoy their golden years in a positive, meaningful, graceful and dignified manner.

 

To encourage more concerted efforts in building age-friendly environments across the world, the World Health Organisation has developed the WHO Global Network of Age-friendly Cities & Communities.

 

On this, I am pleased to say that three of Hong Kong's 18 districts, namely Sai Kung, Kwai Tsing and Tsuen Wan, have become accredited members of the network. This marks an important step in making Kong Kong an elderly-friendly city.

 

These three districts have pledged to make their local environment more friendly to our senior citizens in terms of eight indicators, namely outdoor space and buildings, transportation, housing, social participation, respect and social inclusion, civic participation and employment, communication and information, and community support and health services.

 

Commitment to improve livelihood

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is committed to improving the livelihood of our senior citizens and inculcating an elderly-friendly culture. The estimated recurrent expenditure on elderly care services in 2015-16 amounts to about $6.8 billion, representing 11.5% of the total recurrent social welfare expenditure.

 

Taking into consideration government spending on social security and healthcare, recurrent expenditure for the elderly as a whole adds up to a substantial $62 billion or a significant 19.1% of the total government recurrent expenditure.

 

In keeping with our cardinal policy of promoting active ageing, we have been improving both the hardware and software at the community level for use by our senior citizens. Since 2014-15, the Government has increased the annual recurrent funding by some $160 million to upgrade our Social Centres for the Elderly to Neighbourhood Elderly Centres and enable all subvented elderly centres to increase their manpower and programme expenses, strengthen volunteer mobilisation, counselling service and carer support.

 

To enhance the attractiveness of our elderly centres, especially to those with better education and wider interests, the Social Welfare Department introduced the Improvement Programme of Elderly Centres in 2012 with an allocation of $900 million from the Lotteries Fund.

 

Encouraging lifelong learning

So far, a total of 237 elderly centres have joined the programme to upgrade their physical set-up such as acquiring computer equipment for lifelong learning and fitness exercise equipment for health. The HKJC Charities Trust has generously donated $110 million to the programme.

 

The Jockey Club Elderly Facilities Modernisation Scheme enables elderly centres to procure upgraded furniture and equipment, which addresses the diverse needs of a new generation of elderly persons with better education and wider interests and further supports them to age in place.

 

Government funding has also been used to support district organisations to run activities which promote a sense of worth among the elderly and nurture the spirit of caring for our elderly citizens.

 

To enable our senior citizens to pursue life-long learning in a school setting and lead a more fulfilled life, the Labour & Welfare Bureau and the Elderly Commission launched the Elder Academy Scheme in 2007. The scheme encourages the elderly to widen their social networks and maintain physical and mental well-being.

 

Inter-generational harmony can be enhanced since young students may participate in related activities. There are now 129 Elder Academies. In March 2014, the Government injected $50 million into the Elder Academy Development Foundation to ensure the scheme's continuous development.

 

$2 fare keeps seniors on the move

To encourage our senior citizens and eligible persons with disabilities to participate more in community activities, my bureau has been implementing the Public Transport Fare Concession Scheme for the Elderly & Eligible Persons with Disabilities since June 2012. Under the scheme, senior citizens can travel on the general Mass Transit Railway lines, franchised buses, ferries and 94% of all green minibus routes at a concessionary fare of $2 per trip anytime.

 

This scheme has proved highly popular and effective in encouraging the elderly to participate more in the community and widen their social networks. The number of average daily passenger trips made under the highly popular scheme is around 890,000, including 780,000 trips made by elderly people.

 

This scheme is estimated to cost the Government $900 million in this financial year in terms of reimbursement to the public transport operators for the differential in fare revenue forgone. I strongly believe that this is money well spent as it encourages our senior citizens to be socially and physically mobile in their golden years.

 

Apart from this transport fare concession scheme, the Government is mindful of the need to ensure barrier-free access not only for people with disabilities but also for our growing elderly population. We are stepping up our efforts in removing or reducing all the hurdles hampering their physical movement in society.

 

Unleashing retirees' labour potential

I must say that we should not just seek to improve and ensure the physical accessibility for our senior citizens. We should also remove any obstacles blocking their entry or retention in the labour market. In fact, in face of the dual challenges of a fast-ageing population and shrinking labour force in the next two decades, we should unleash the potential of the able-bodied young old and the so-called "early retirees".

 

We should create an elderly-friendly environment in our labour market so that those baby boomers who are active, healthy, capable and willing to work can continue to contribute to Hong Kong's productivity and economic competitiveness. After all, experience never grows old and, indeed, the older the better. But this calls for a fundamental change in the mindset of employers at large so that they will not shy away from engaging older staff.

 

Let me conclude by reiterating our commitment to build communities that enable our senior citizens to stay healthy and active for as long as possible, to remain connected to their loved ones and the rest of the world, and to live with dignity and grace whatever their physical conditions.

 

Most important of all, we should encourage people to view ageing positively and treat our senior citizens with respect and care. Let us remember that not all old people are frail and poor. On the contrary, many of them are fit, healthy, active and financially capable.

 

This explains why the private sector is already eyeing the immense business opportunities arising from a fast-growing silver hair market in Hong Kong.

 

Secretary for Labour & Welfare Matthew Cheung gave this address at a conference on creating age-friendly communities.

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