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Thursday, December 26, 2019, 10:02
Gerontech comes of age as HK grays
By Kathy Zhang
Thursday, December 26, 2019, 10:02 By Kathy Zhang

Hong Kong is relying more on high-tech to deal with a rapidly aging population and a dwindling workforce, as well as to lift professional standards and upgrade elderly care services. Kathy Zhang reports.

Hong Kong is among the leaders seeking new ways to confront Asia’s aging crisis. Government projections estimate that 2.37 million people in the SAR will be over 65 by 2036 — more than one-third of the city’s population. A rapidly aging population has put Hong Kong in a dilemma with a depleting workforce.

The city can rightly be proud that life expectancy here is among the highest in the world but, as more people get old, the need to care for them is exerting additional strain on our workers.

The Hong Kong Society for the Aged (SAGE) is involved in ongoing efforts to collaborate with high-tech developers to add to the array of devices to help the elderly. 

ALSO READ: HK sets up elderly care tech platform

Among them are motion sensing games to be used at SAGE’s elder care facilities to assist in rehabilitation activities. There’s also visual bowling, one of the most popular games, in which players stand in front of big screens, get set and throw the visual ball on the screen to score points.

SAGE Executive Director Maggie Leung Yee-mei says the games add entertainment value to routine exercises. “The seniors’ attitude toward exercises becomes more positive,” she said.

Virtual reality technology is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Elders suffering from dementia are shown 3D images of scenes familiar to them — streets, parks and landmarks in communities they’ve lived in.

Leung said the exercise helps to awaken deep-seated memories, thus easing off the symptoms of dementia.

SAGE uses imported equipment where it can, but there’s a problem demanding specialized facilities for the local environment. Chairman Kim Mak Kin-wah notes that much of the equipment from overseas is too big for Hong Kong’s comparatively small facilities. Sometimes, cultural differences create a mismatch that means a particular device from overseas is not suitable here.

In his view, collaboration with sci-tech enterprises has helped social service facilities to get a better understanding of elderly people and their caregivers.

“We know more about the demands and habits of the elderly and what users need,” said Mak.

READ MORE: Elder-care shortage needs early remedy

Haven of Hope Christian Service (HOHCS) is a non-governmental organization providing elderly care and rehabilitation services in Hong Kong. It signed an agreement with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in August to jointly explore solutions that may improve the quality of life for the elderly and their caregivers.

Gerontech is helping to modernize the field, making it less laborious and raising the sector to a higher standard of professionalization, said Lam Ching-choi, chairman of the Elderly Commission

Under the partnership, HOHCS will serve as a testing platform for the university to study tailor-made solutions and develop products to meet the broader needs of the organization’s clients.

The university and HOHCS are discussing cooperation in seven projects, including a study of the genetic risk factors concerning Alzheimer’s disease among elderly Chinese. Another project aims to develop a real-time 3D facial recognition system to detect symptoms relating to the onset of mental and physical diseases.

Mak expects to see more cross-sector collaboration leading to the development of more user-friendly tech products for the local silver-hair market.

Burden lightened

With the working population in decline, the community will be hard-pressed to supply the workforce to care for the elderly. That’s another important element of gerontech research — to provide more services with fewer workers.

READ MORE: Gerontech on life support

The Social Welfare Department surveyed the manpower situation at 69 non-governmental elderly care providers in 2017. The staff vacancy rate for personal care workers at those institutions showed an average vacancy rate of 18 percent.

High-tech products will alleviate staff shortages. New devices can monitor the health of elderly patients, identify their locations and take stock for inventory control. The technological devices will not only enlighten the burden on human resources, but will be more efficient.   

Even at the present state of the art, some dementia sufferers in Hong Kong are equipped with anti-wandering and tracking waistcoats in nursing homes.

With the help of radio frequency identification devices on their waistcoats, elderly people who wander out of safe places will trigger an alarm. Caregivers can locate wandering patients with real-time efficiency.

Wearable robotic lifts assist caregivers by reducing the strain of lifting paralyzed seniors onto beds or off.

Advances in technology, however, can never remove the necessity for human staff. The elderly care sector hopes to attract more young people. Vice-President of Lingnan University Joshua Mok Ka-ho said the younger generation’s participation is vital to the sector’s development.

As a specialist in social policy, Mok urged schools to create more opportunities for students to deepen their understanding of gerontech and aging issues. “This may lure more young blood to the city’s elderly care sector,” he said.

Gerontech is helping to modernize the field, making it less laborious and raising the sector to a higher standard of professionalization, said Lam Ching-choi, chairman of the Elderly Commission.

“It will change the whole elderly care sector’s environment,” he envisaged.

Government’s role

Mok reckons that gerontech development in Hong Kong still trails evolving technologies in Europe, Japan and Taiwan.

He said the challenge is to raise the awareness of the value of high-tech devices among the elderly and frontline workers.

ALSO READ: Aging population: Australia, HK 'can collaborate on robotics, AI'

Lam, who’s also a member of the Executive Council — the top policy-making advisory body to Hong Kong’s chief executive — noted the first step is to encourage service providers to adopt tech devices for the aged.

The Hong Kong government set up the HK$1 billion Innovation and Technology Fund for Application in Elderly and Rehabilitation Care in December last year. The fund provides subsidies for elderly care and rehabilitation services units to procure, rent and test technological products.

According to the Labour and Welfare Bureau, up to HK$37 million has been granted to more than 210 eligible applicants so far to purchase or rent about 870 technological devices. Up to Sept 24, more than 650 elderly care and rehabilitation services units had submitted documents in the second round of applications.

As for the next step, the government intends to extend the subsidy to individual users, said Lam. 

He said the government is considering allowing residents to rent tech devices with Community Care Service Vouchers for the Elderly granted by the government.

Currently, eligible elderly people can access different services in community centers or at homes with the vouchers. Rehabilitation exercises, nursing care and personal care are included.

Vivian Lou Wei-qun, director of Sau Po Centre on Aging at the University of Hong Kong, still has misgivings. She’s worried that Hong Kong’s elderly care sector lacks a clear plan to guide gerontech’s development. 

She said social efforts are scattered and a joint approach is lacking, and suggested that the government take the lead and empower more precise objectives for the sector’s development.

Up to December, Hong Kong had held three annual Gerontech and Innovation expositions. The SAR government has pledged to set up a center in Kwun Tong to exhibit technological products and provide consulting services to seniors to help them choose suitable devices. 

However, Hong Kong still faces an array of challenges ahead, specialists have warned. Hong Kong has a long way to go before it can eventually and effectively cope with an aging crisis with the help of technology.

Contact the writer at kathyzhang@chinadailyhk.com

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