The Hong Kong government has been reviewing various benefits aimed at the elderly. In particular, the qualification age for elderly Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) is being raised from 60 to 65.
Critics accuse the administration of being uncaring and cutting spending on the less well-off elderly. But in fact the payments for elderly CSSA are rising and – as announced in the recent policy address – means-tests for Old Age Living Allowance are being relaxed. Expenditure on the elderly is becoming more generous.
The changes in age qualification are in response to rising life expectancy. People today are healthier than previous generations, and so they are living longer. The phenomenon of an aging population requires us to re-think concepts of working lives and retirement age. It makes sense for people to work (and save) longer.
However, there is another side to the aging population – and that is the declining number of younger people as a proportion of the population. It means that even if people retire at a later age, there are fewer younger people to look after them as eventually they need more personal care and services.
For an idea of the future – look at Japan. Already, 25 percent of the Japanese population is over 65; forecasts suggest that this will eventually rise to 40 percent if birth rate or immigration patterns do not change significantly. (In Hong Kong the current level is around 15 percent, with a peak of 35 percent forecast for 2060s.)
Japan is already addressing aging as a major policy issue – covering not only pensions and healthcare, but technology and the role of the elderly as a social resource rather than a burden.Disasters like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami have particularly focused Japanese to the seriousness of this issue.
For obvious reasons, people with mobility problems were more likely to suffer death or injury. The tragedy also highlighted the vulnerability of the elderly to disruptions in supplies of medicine and critical services. On the brighter side, the elderly who survived the disaster played a unique role in the recovery of their communities, providing leadership and advice based on their long wisdom and experience.
Reconstruction has since provided challenges and opportunities in terms of designing living environments with the elderly in mind.
Even without the disaster, Japan has a major incentive to produce new ways to solve aging-related problems. The declining number of young people means a serious shortage of manpower in elderly care, so technology and innovation are vital.
On a recent visit to Japan, I was among 100,000 people who visited an exhibition devoted to new approaches to elderly care. These range from basic household tools that boost convenience and safety, such as anti-fall measures. They include new applications for robotic and smart technology in such areas as emergency communications, mobility devices like wheelchairs, and delivery systems for medication or groceries. Companies are also thinking about luxuries, like cosmetics for the aged. Japan is also exploring new approaches to comprehensive long-term health and care coverage.
We in Hong Kong should be learning from Japan’s example. A recent report from Our Hong Kong Foundation points the way by taking a positive view of demographic change. The title of the report – “An Investment for the Celebration of Aging” – is a reminder that policy can help the older population make real contributions to our economy and society.
The researchers accept that an aging population requires a shift in healthcare priorities. They particularly recommend greater priority for chronic disease screening and management to address rising levels of conditions like hypertension and diabetes.
To augment this, they also call for a “health-enabling network” to boost healthcare capacity for the elderly. This would bring together public, private and voluntary providers. It would also focus on neighborhood-level facilities.
Perhaps the key part of the researchers’ thinking concerns what they call an “age-enabling city”.
This includes preparing for longer working lives through lifelong learning and senior volunteer programs. This would help society make use of older citizens’ skills and experience, and it could compensate for the decline in the number of younger workers.
The report also supports the Healthy Aging focus initiated by the Innovation and Technology Bureau and the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation, and investment in regenerative medicine research at Chinese University.
And of course, it raises the issue of assistive technology – as being developed in Japan to help the elderly live more independent and productive lives.
Hong Kong spends far more time and money on new products and ideas aimed at infants, children and the young. There are good reasons for that, of course. But the long-term growth opportunities are at the other end of age range, where the needs will be so big. Entrepreneurs and innovators – and policymakers – looking for big trends should start thinking about a greyer future.
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