Caring for our elderly amidst the pandemic

February 11, 2021 10:32
Photo: JC JoyAge Facebook

Auntie Lau, who lives alone, is 87 years old and had always been cheerful and energetic. Since the pandemic broke out, social distancing rules have prevented her from attending events at the elderly community centre, worshiping at the Buddhist temple, enjoying dim sum with friends and relatives, or partaking in physical exercises. One year on, her health has deteriorated considerably – her energy level is low, and her walking pace has slowed. Recently, as the weather got colder, Auntie Lau suffered a sudden attack of arthritis in her shoulders and elbows. The pain was so bad that she became irritable, demoralised and disheartened. She cried, ‘If I could get an injection to end it all, then praise the Buddha’.

Auntie Lau is plagued by anxiety and lost interest in life. Her predicament is an example of the difficulties faced by old people living alone amidst the current pandemic. From February to August 2020, the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong conducted telephone interviews with more than 8,000 people aged 60 or above and found that over 90% had reduced their social activities and 10% were showing symptoms of depression or anxiety.

When old people fall ill, they lose energy and interest in daily activities; they experience insomnia and loss of appetite; they have slower reflexes; they become despondent and anxious. If they cannot receive comfort from family and friends or counselling services from medical professionals, they may develop depression over time, which then leads to thoughts and actions of self-harm.

According to data from the Hospital Authority, the suicide rate of elderly people is the highest among all age groups in Hong Kong, with over 30 cases in every 100,000 people each year, which is ten times higher than the suicide rate of teenagers and more than three times higher than its equivalent in the West. According to Suicide Prevention Services, 379 people aged 60 or above committed suicide in 2019, a record number, which equated to one suicide every day on average. As Hong Kong’s population continues to age, anxiety and depression among the elderly should be given more attention.

Information technology may be able to bring people closer during the pandemic and mitigate the effect of isolation. Mobile phones and computers have been used to enable video communication. Unfortunately, many old people have difficulties adopting new technologies and can only use feature phones for voice calls. Without the ability to use smartphones, they will struggle with WhatsApp and Zoom. It is much harder for them to feel the care and love of family and friends without videos and images. As a result, old people tend to feel lonely and lack the means to channel their emotions.

In addition, old people are physically weaker; they usually suffer hearing loss; and their mental faculties are not as sharp as they used to be. Therefore, they may struggle to express themselves. As a result, it can be hard to detect depression among the elderly population. Our Hong Kong Foundation believes that the government should improve primary health care so that the elderly can receive timely medical treatment in the community. In addition, it should push for the implementation of ‘medical-social collaboration’, encouraging the social welfare sector and the medical sector to work together in the provision of appropriate support to the elderly.

For example, to tackle depression among the elderly, JC JoyAge: Jockey Club Holistic Support Project for Elderly Mental Wellness was launched in 2016. It is a collaboration between the University of Hong Kong and several social welfare organisations. By training volunteers to be Mental Health First Aiders, the project aims to identify elderly people with mental health risks in the community. In the first three years of the project, more than 200 volunteers have reached out to the community and contacted about 4,300 elderly people at risk of depression or with symptoms of depression. Thanks to the timely provision of preventive and therapeutic services, 98% of them are now in a better mental state. In the next four years, the programme will be extended to all 18 districts in Hong Kong, to enable volunteers to assist older people in their local community. In Hong Kong, depression among the elderly has become a serious social problem and their suicide rate remains high. The government should commit more resources to the implementation of ‘medical-social collaboration’ on a regular basis. They will ensure that the elderly receive psychological counselling from social workers and medications from health care professionals, offering adequate care and reducing the number of tragedies.

The older generation have made significant contributions to Hong Kong’s success over the past decades. Faced with an ageing population, the government should allocate more resources to elderly services and build a compassionate society, where the senior citizens are properly cared for.

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Managing Editor at Our Hong Kong Foundation.