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Speech by SLW at International Symposium on Active Ageing (English only)

     Following is the speech by the Secretary for Labour and Welfare, Mr Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, at the International Symposium on Active Ageing organised by the Institute of Active Ageing (IAA) of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) today (July 3):

Professor Timothy Tong (President of PolyU), Dr Leong Che-hung (Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the Institute of Active Ageing, PolyU), Mrs Teresa Tsien (Director of the Institute of Active Ageing, PolyU), distinguished speakers, guests, ladies and gentlemen,

     Good morning. It gives me great pleasure to address this high-powered and multi-disciplinary mix of audience comprising experts in gerontology, public health, social policy, biomedical engineering, technology, design and tourism. The breadth and depth of expertise and experience of today's speakers and participants underline the fact that active ageing is a subject with multiple facets and interfaces.

     Let me begin by warmly congratulating the Institute of Active Ageing on organising this most timely symposium to mark its 5th anniversary. There is no better way to celebrate the occasion than hosting this international cross-sectoral intellectual banquet, which will provide good food for thoughts for academics, practitioners and policymakers alike.

     Over the past five years, the IAA has gone from strength to strength under the capable leadership of its Chairman, Dr Leong Che-hung as well as its founder and director, Mrs Teresa Tsien. By pooling academics from 23 disciplines across the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the IAA has created synergy in promoting and launching innovative research and inter-disciplinary educational programmes on the subjects of ageing and gerontology whilst operating on a self-financed basis.

     Like many developed economies in the world, Hong Kong is at the threshold of a large demographic shift as the generation of baby boomers starts to retire. Improvements in health and shrinking fertility rates also add to our rapidly greying population.

     The life expectancy in Hong Kong is currently 81 years for men and 86 years for women, almost the highest in the world. These figures will rise to 85 years for men and 91 years for women by 2041. At present, Hong Kong's elderly population stands at about 1.1 million, meaning that one out of about seven Hong Kong people is aged 65 or above. These will jump to a staggering 2.56 million or one in three by 2041.

     No doubt, an ageing population poses challenges to Hong Kong's healthcare, social welfare and elderly care services. However, we must never forget that, with proper planning, these challenges are not insurmountable. And with challenges always come opportunities. After all, not all old people are frail, poor and need care and support. There are many who are financially capable and physically self-reliant. This should be particularly the case with the new generation of retirees. Indeed, the business sector is eyeing the growing local silver hair market.

     The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) Government is committed to improving the livelihood of our senior citizens. The estimated recurrent expenditure on elderly care services in 2015-16 amounts to about $6.8 billion, representing 11.5 per cent of the total recurrent social welfare expenditure. Taking into consideration the spending on social security and health care, recurrent expenditure for the elderly as a whole adds up to a substantial $62 billion or 19.1 per cent of the total government recurrent expenditure.

     Active ageing is a key pillar of the Hong Kong SAR Government's elderly policy. By active ageing, we mean optimising opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance the quality of life as people age. In simple terms, it is about how to enable the elderly to stay active, remain healthy, keep fit and, more importantly, to think positive. I see active ageing as part of the essential and constructive efforts upstream in preventing and postponing our senior citizens from falling into the expensive and passive net of institutional and medical care downstream.

Active Ageing at the Community Level

     To improve the hardware and software at the community level for use by our senior citizens, the Government has since 2014-15 increased the annual recurrent funding by some $160 million to upgrade our Social Centres for the Elderly to Neighbourhood Elderly Centres and enable all subvented elderly centres to increase their manpower and programme expenses, strengthen volunteer mobilisation, counselling service and carer support.

     To enhance the attractiveness of the elderly centres to our senior citizens, especially those with better education and wider interests, the Social Welfare Department introduced the Improvement Programme of Elderly Centres in 2012 with an allocation of $900 million from the Lotteries Fund. So far, a total of 237 elderly centres have joined the programme to uplift their physical set-up such as acquiring computer equipment for lifelong learning and fitness exercise equipment for health.

     Government funding has also been used to support district organisations to run activities which promote a sense of worthiness among the elderly and nurture the spirit of caring for our elderly citizens.

Lifelong Learning and Inter-generational Harmony

     To enable our senior citizens to pursue life-long learning in a school setting and lead a more fulfilled life, the Labour and Welfare Bureau (LWB) and the Elderly Commission launched the Elder Academy Scheme in 2007. The Academy encourages the elderly to widen their social networks and maintain physical and mental well-being. The Scheme seeks to promote cross-sectoral collaboration by making schools and community organisations such as parent-teacher associations co-run an Elder Academy. Inter-generational harmony can be enhanced since young students can also participate in such activities. There are now 125 Elder Academies. In March 2014, the Government injected $50 million into the Elder Academy Development Foundation to ensure the Scheme's continuous development.

     The LWB plans to launch a pilot project to help grandparents become well-trained child carers in a home setting in order to promote active ageing, strengthen support to local nuclear families and ease the demand for child care services. Formal training will be offered to grandparents on the latest knowledge and skills in caring for young children. We hope that this pilot project will enable grandparents to play an active role in families, thereby narrowing the gap between generations and contributing to the sustainable development of society.

Moving Around

     To encourage the elderly aged 65 or above and eligible persons with disabilities to participate more in community activities, my bureau has been implementing the Public Transport Fare Concession Scheme for the Elderly and Eligible Persons with Disabilities since June 2012. Under the Scheme, senior citizens can travel on the general Mass Transit Railway lines, franchised buses, ferries and 91 per cent of all green minibus routes at a concessionary fare of $2 per trip anytime. The Government will continue to encourage the remaining green minibus operators to join the Scheme.

     This Scheme has proved highly effective in encouraging the elderly to participate more in the community and widen their social networks. It is interesting to note that the number of average daily passenger trips made under the Scheme is around 880 000, including 770 000 trips made by elderly people. This speaks volumes about its popularity. This scheme is estimated to cost the Government $900 million in this financial year in terms of reimbursement to the public transport operators for the differential in fare revenue forgone. I strongly believe that this is money well spent as it encourages our senior citizens to be socially and physically mobile in their golden years.

     Apart from this transport subsidy scheme, the Government is mindful of the need to ensure barrier-free access not only for people with disabilities but also for our growing elderly population. We should seek to remove or reduce all the hurdles hampering their physical movement in society.

Retraining and Employment

     A key pillar in promoting active ageing is to facilitate and enable those "young old", especially the early retirees, who are willing to work to remain in employment in whatever form. In fact, with Hong Kong's labour force expected to shrink between 2018 and 2035 as a result of a fast ageing population and falling fertility rate, we need to create an elderly-friendly employment environment. According to the figures of the Employees Retraining Board (ERB), the demand for training of mature persons has steadily increased in recent years. For instance, the number of admitted ERB trainees aged 50 and above increased from 45 300 in 2012-13 to 51 400 in 2014-15. Given this, the ERB will introduce a new course on Foundation Certificate in Workplace Re-entry for mature persons in the third quarter of this year. It will also continue to explore its training and services for this group.

     In this respect, the Labour Department also plays an important role and provides an array of employment services for this group. Dedicated counters have been set up in all 13 Job Centres of the department to offer priority registration and employment referral services for job seekers aged 50 and above. From the second quarter of 2015, the Labour Department is progressively launching a series of measures such as employment briefings and a dedicated webpage for mature job seekers, a large-scale thematic job fair and experience sharing sessions for employers to assist mature persons to rejoin the employment market.

     Ladies and gentlemen, I have briefly outlined our multifaceted and wide-ranging measures to enable the elderly to age well in an active, dignified and graceful manner. However, they are not meant to be exhaustive. While resources and policies are essential, what is fundamental is the public mindset. It requires all of us to change culture and norms to become a more elderly-friendly society.

     It is vitally important for us to embrace the challenges of an ageing community in a positive and proactive fashion. We should do all we can to energise, empower, enable, equip and educate our senior citizens to lead an active, meaningful, purposeful and healthy life in their golden years. Whilst the Government has mapped out a holistic strategy to replenish and rejuvenate our population in the years ahead through unleashing the potential of the local population, encouraging births and attracting young talents from outside Hong Kong, we cannot alter the fact of Hong Kong fast becoming an ageing city. After all, demography is destiny. That said, we should make a virtue of necessity and turn challenge into opportunity. I therefore look to your discussion and deliberation today for useful food for thoughts to make Hong Kong a better place in which to age.

     On this note, I wish the Symposium every success and all of you fruitful and stimulating exchanges. Happy birthday, IAA. Thank you.

Ends/Friday, July 3, 2015
Issued at HKT 11:16


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