Dr Ben Y. F. Fong reflects on the challenges faced by an increasing ageing population, and calls on those responsible for the care of the elderly—the Government, healthcare professionals, service providers, carers and families—to prioritise holistic and humanistic care for older adults.
Most developed societies are facing with increasing ageing populations, thanks to improved economy, cumulative personal wealth, advancement in medicine and technology, better understanding of diseases, and availability of health services.
Longevity is regarded as a blessing in all cultures, but living a long life may not be a good thing for some individuals if there is no quality of life, or if one is home-bound or even bed-bound. Everyone must have lived, and most have worked, for several decades before the coming of ageing or getting old. What does it mean by being old? This is very simple question to answer – ageing implies getting towards the end or final stage of life or presence on earth as a living creature.
The utmost importance is to live happily with dignity, and with optimal health. And, when one becomes dependent (understandably common among older adults) one should receive humanistic care and services. Unfortunately abusing the elderly by carers, whether blood-related or on the pay-roll, is not uncommon in this civilized world where many people and governments are talking about ethics and laws to protect their citizens, particularly the more vulnerable groups like the elderly, women, children and ethnic minorities. Mental health among the older generation is a major social and public health issue, and is associated with high elderly suicidal rate, particularly in developed communities.
It was disturbing, distressing and heart-breaking when elderly patients in Hong Kong, were left in the open areas outside the Accident and Emergency Departments of public hospitals in February 2022, the early days of the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, that affected at least 1.2 million residents or 15% of the population. Although temporary make-shift shelters were provided, these sick elderlies, mostly arising from the coronavirus infection, were waiting for hours and even a few days before they were admitted to the wards. It was spring time in Hong Kong and the weather then was much colder than usual, when the monthly mean temperature was 15.2 degrees, 1.9 degrees below the normal figure of 17.1 degrees. On some days, there was drizzle. The community got very angry but hospital management and the Government appeared to be “indifferent” to what was happening and put things down to the fact that there was a sudden surge of positive cases, and the healthcare system “collapsed” and could not handle the huge load of patients. Hospital wards were full and staff were inundated with the large influx of sick people.
Many people were wondering where dignity was when the elderlies were treated in such an inhumane manner. The new book “Ageing with Dignity in Hong Kong and Asia - Holistic and Humanistic Care” is timely. It has three main themes, namely policies and development of aged care, holistic and humanistic care for the elderly and capacity building for ageing with dignity. The topics cover a wide scope of issues related the special needs of the elderly, and practical solutions, including capacity building in the healthcare system, pertaining to the care of the elderly with dignity in a holistic and humanistic manner.
With the increasing ageing population on earth, aged care must always be a top priority policy consideration. Strategies, no matter how well intended, are not good enough if they do not entail dignity and the humane perspective, which should be on the agenda of all stakeholders involved in the care and business of elderly services, such as the Government, healthcare professionals, service providers, carers and families. The situation in Hong Kong, as described above, happened after the writing of the new book had been submitted for production, but it is a real-life case for the world to take note of and learn what not to do to the elderly. Even this world class city (Hong Kong is small in size but has a big fame) could not uphold the ideal of mankind in caring for the sick elderly with dignity and humanity. Traditional Chinese philosophy teaches us to treat the elderly as our own, no matter what. It is hoped that “Love the elderly, respect the elderly and protect the elderly” should be promoted as a dictum in caring for the older adults in the world.
Dr Ben Fong is a specialist in Community Medicine and Professor of Practice (Health Studies), College of Professional and Continuing Education, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong, China. He is the EiC of the forthcoming Handbook of Public Health in Asia-Pacific (2024/5), and co-editor of Ageing with Dignity in Hong Kong and Asia (2022) and Primary Care Revisited (2020).