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The scheme was introduced in September this year as a pilot scheme to provide eligible elderly people with a sum of HK$5,800 per month to subsidise the costs of day care centre or home care services.

The problem is, the assessment only looks at a person’s physical functions in determining the level of impairment. Dementia patients in good physical shape have no hope of getting welfare support.

The push to provide adequate and appropriate care for the elderly with mental health problems in Hong Kong seems like a long and tough struggle. Edwin Yu Chi-shing, a consultant psychogeriatrician at Kwai Chung Hopsital, identifies three main factors that make it difficult for the mental health issues of the elderly to be properly addressed.

Edmond Yu Chi-shing, consultant psychogeriatrician at Kwai Chung Hospital, pioneered mahjong as a treatment for dementia patients
Edmond Yu Chi-shing, consultant psychogeriatrician at Kwai Chung Hospital, pioneered mahjong as a treatment for dementia patients

Firstly, the elderly as a group are relatively poor, with one in three living below the poverty line. The difficulties of making ends meet adds to their mental stress. Second, Hong Kong’s fast-paced lifestyle contributes to a lack of social support for the elderly, as most of their children are too busy to spend time with them. Third, a high proportion of the elderly are afflicted by various illnesses and this leaves them more prone to mental disorders.

Yu himself is a pioneer, setting up a psychogeriatrician team to provide an outreach care service for the mentally ill elderly in the community and developing the use of mahjong to treat dementia patients. Apart from his professional knowledge and experience, he understands the problems of elderly people with mental illnesses as someone who has lived with mental illness in his own family for most of his life.

Yu’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was still a child, which partly contributed to his choice of a career in psychiatry as a doctor. In 2001, he became depressed as a result of the immense pressure he faced when he revitalised the psychogeriatric team at Kwai Chung Hospital.

As someone who can easily step into the shoes of the elderly who have mental health problems, Yu says stigmatisation of the elderly with mental illnesses has lessened compared with the past. But the elderly are still easily forgotten, ignored or simply overlooked. “Dementia and depression are under-diagnosed and under-treated,” he says.

Finding solutions to the problem will require effort in many different areas. But for the elderly themselves, perhaps a start could be as simple as getting some genuine attention from the very people they have spent much of their lives caring for.

Edited by Matthew Leung