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Lee sold her flat in Hong Kong to pay for her son’s treatment for kidney disease. She applied for public housing but was still on the waiting list after four years. She then rented a flat in Futian, Shenzhen before moving to Yee Hong Heights with her husband two years ago.

The couple live in a superior type of residential care unit called a “villa” which is actually a 500-square-foot independent flat. She says she does not want to live with other elderly people in the centre, although she does dine with other residents in the main building next to her flat. She also attends a cooking class offered every Thursday to have a social life.

Lee says it was hard to adapt at the beginning. “The [mainland] chef is a Hakka. He put five-spice powder in stewed pork, I would faint upon smelling it,” she says.

The villa in the Shenzhen home

Even at the Shenzhen centre, Hong Kong seniors make up less than half — 65 out of 175 — of the total number of residents. The rest are from the Mainland and Lee noticed cultural differences. She says mainland residents do not know what “good morning” is in Cantonese and have different habits.

The centre is still operating under capacity as it can accommodate 350 elderly residents. But there have been more enquiries since the Guangdong Scheme was introduced. The number of Hong Kong residents rose by 50 per cent last year, compared with 2012.

As interest in retiring to Guangdong picks up, Jackie Mo Si-jie, director of Hong Kong Jockey Club Shenzhen Society for Rehabilitation Yee Hong Heights, points out the province faces its own aging problem. “There aren’t enough elderly homes in Guangdong to meet the needs locally,” she says.

In fact, there are just 15.8 residential care places per one thousand elderly people in Guangdong, which means it ranks in the bottom five in China. So, the province cannot simply be viewed as a solution to Hong Kong’s own lack of subsidised residential care for the elderly.

Besides, not all Hong Kong elderly are willing to move. “If I need to live in the Mainland, I need to change my lifestyle to follow local customs; it would be inconvenient,” says 83-year-old Granny Hung. Her son and carer says that without sufficient ancillary facilities, it would not be much different to migrating to America or Canada.

Civic Party Legislator Alan Leong Kah-kit says moves to provide the elderly with greater choice is not bad in itself but there should be medical facilities nearby. He also accuses the government of being shortsighted.

“You [the government] neither increase hugely the government elderly homes, nor put more resources into training doctors or nurses. You only talk about two elderly homes which are underused in the past 10 years,” says Leung. “Going to heaven is much easier than entering elderly homes.”

Government statistics show that 5,100 elderly people died last year before they could get a subsidised residential care place in Hong Kong.

Leung’s view is echoed by Vivian Lou Weiqun, associate director of Sau Po Centre on Ageing and an assistant professor in the Department of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Hong Kong. “It is not reasonable to study a solution that can only benefit a few hundred people,” Lou says.

Lou says the policy is only suitable for the healthy elderly and that even if medical services in the Mainland were subsidised, Hong Kong people would come back for treatment because they do not trust the mainland medical system.

“If you are only thinking we have too many elderly, then we will put some [in the Mainland], I think it is irrational,” says Lou, “I don’t deign to guess the [policy’s] intention, but my evaluation is that the cost of such a policy is higher than the benefit.”

Lou says it would be easier to handle existing problems locally than to set up new systems in other places. She thinks the bar is set too low to apply for a residential care place, leading to a long Central Waiting List. On the other hand, she says that if there are better community services, there would be less of a need for residential care.

Lou conducted a study with the Housing Authority and found the elderly were far more confident and reassured about living in their communities when there were elderly service units available locally. “When [they] live together, there is support,” says Lou.

Edited by Tommy Lee