As a society ruled by a younger generation propels into the future, the ageing parents are left behind, living out their final stages of life in poor living conditions. This has prompted the birth of an NGO which pledges better senior living with an ingenuous trash-to-treasure initiative – Longevity.
Mrs Chow, a 73-year-old, who has long suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, hobbles into the bathtub on a cold winter’s day, wobbling and struggling; aside her is the vestige of a grab bar that has been removed by her son for aesthetic purposes.
Chow lied to her son saying the handrail was unnecessary as she was apprehensive that creating trouble would see her end up in a care facility; so to make sure she can stay home, she would rather spend some hard minutes every day getting into the bathtub – despite the risk of hurting herself.
This is just one of many heart-wrenching stories handled by Longevity Design House, an NGO established last year with a lofty vision to improve the lives of the elderly by turning construction surpluses into maintenance materials, targeting to repair and renovate the homes of some 2,000 elderly households in three years.
“Elderly parents tend to avoid raising problems to their offspring because they worry that the moment they raise their problems, that’s the moment they are put into nursing homes,”
says Longevity co-founder Ray Tang.
Sadly, Chow’s case is the tip of the iceberg. Issues for the elderly have long been knowingly overlooked, even by the government.
In a community where seniors aged over 60 amounts to more than 20% and counting, nursing homes in Hong Kong and their regulation are severely lacking.
With a pool of about 160,000 elderly people in Hong Kong, the insufficient government expenditure on elderly care is expected to cause lots of latent problems, some of which, nursing home regulation, for example, have become plain after the horrific naked abuse scandal, at the now notorious Cambridge Nursing Home, broke last year.
Though the wellbeing of the elderly is now on the agenda, the government has been dragging its heels on building more nursing homes because it takes an enormous 140 million dollars to create 1,200 beds.
But these places will be needed as the elderly population in Hong Kong is estimated to climb from 15% in 2014 to 38% by 2064. Instead, land has been reserved and allotted for a nimiety of luxury residential real estate without regard for the needs of the elderly.
“Most residential structures in Hong Kong are inhabitable for the elderly since there are way too many corners, narrow corridors and they are way too small, particularly for those who are in wheelchairs,” Tang says.
“Even for ageing parents whose children have moved out, their homes are not designed for them; many of whom refuse to throw away their children’s belongings and keep the space for their children. These homes are not elderly-friendly at all.”
Even if they’re aware of the potential dangers brought by poor living conditions, Tang acknowledges the elderly are more prudent in their spending on restoration as it’s often unclear to them if the investment is justified. As a result, many choose to keep the status quo even if home maintenance is needed after it has been weakened by the passage of time.
This issue prompted three young minds, including Ray Tang, Ken Tong and Vicent Mo, to pump in some HK$100,000 each to bring this trash-turn-treasure initiative to life, 30% on rent with the rest mostly on operational costs. The company is founded on an ethical cast of mind and vision to provide affordable home maintenance for the elderly in need.
Some HK$6,000 is estimated to be spared per project and HK$70,000 spared per year as putting the elderly into nursing homes costs an average HK$6,500 per month.
With the help of the HK$40,000 maintenance grant from the government’s Housing Society scheme, which is eligible for private-housing owners aged 60 or above, cost per project ranges from HK$100,000 to more than HK$1,000,000, depending on the mechanical equipment needed.
The costs can rise because of special equipment such as a hoist sling or medical ventilator, which is often needed by the elderly who have suffered strokes, he adds.
“Most clients start with minor restorations for a bathroom or bedroom, however, a safe environment needs to be all-rounded. We can deliver a lot of barrier-free facilities, but they don’t guarantee safeness at home, for example installing a grab bar or a higher toilet at the bathroom doesn’t mean the floor isn’t slippery.”
Unlike standard design firms, an essential step in Longevity’s design principle is to seek advice from therapists and care workers for effective medical home solutions for seniors, but Tang admits research work is as time-consuming as it is dealing with forgetful elderly clients.
“Therapy for the elderly is not our field, but we are getting the hang of it. Right now, our work tilts towards engineering rather than visual impact, but we are slowly shifting our direction. It’s important to make mechanical equipment look appealing, particularly for those who share their homes with families.”
Tang says the company had already broken even just three months after it was established.
“We are not seeking big profits here, but demand is high in this area.”
It’s not hard to see why. Elderly parents have been victimised as the age-old ethics system from the last generation, in which filial piety was highlighted, is disintegrating, alongside the rise of individualism in today’s society. What was considered selfish and unfilial in the past is now seen as an inevitable sacrifice to move ahead.
Mr Cheung, a Tang client in his 40s, was one. He reached out to Tang for a costly home renovation for his 80-year-old father in a wheelchair, but ended up disappearing with some HK$30,000 of the government allowance.
The father had to settle the payment by instalment and put up with the pain every day.
This is perhaps an extreme case, but people living out their final years in their children’s care is becoming increasingly rare in general.
At a time when the government and corporate powerhouses alike are funding local tech starts-up and supporting luxury real estate, it is shameful how little has been done to address the needs of those who have contributed to what we are enjoying today.