Family tragedy rings alarm over plight of caregivers
This article appeared originally in the ejinisght on 30 January, 2021.
Author: Queenie Li, Researcher at Our Hong Kong Foundation
The recurring pattern of tragedies involving murders of family members is a wake-up call for the government and the community to give more support to heavily-stressed caregivers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the plight of caregivers is only getting worse. One of the major causes is the escalating wave of unemployment which has deepened their financial burdens. Since the pandemic began, many non-emergency outreach services by residential care homes were also suspended, depriving a main source of help and support for caregivers. With many care homes halting in-person visits, caregivers are indeed reluctant to send their relatives to such institutions. Anticipating a new decade beginning in 2021, Hong Kong is facing unprecedented policy challenges in looking after the aged and supporting caregivers.
In September last year, a tragic familicide shook Hong Kong. A 46-year-old woman in Kwai Chung allegedly killed her son, who had an intellectual disability, before attempting to take her own life without success. The woman was reported to be under enormous stress as a result of taking care of her son, and she was arrested for murder.
No matter how the investigation turns out to be, a family is broken and a precious life is lost. The incident once again highlights the lack of support for caregivers. What is more depressing is such familicides are not new in Hong Kong. In 2014, an unemployed 61-year-old father in Yuen Long killed his 15 year old autistic son before attempting suicide. These tragedies should never have been allowed to happen.
We are all caregivers
The definition of caregiver is far-stretched. Apart from those who care for disabled people, chronic patients and children, caregivers also refer to those who take care of the elderly within the same household. With the ageing population, the government estimates that in 2036, more than 30% of the population will be 65 years old or above. In a quarter of the century’s time, we will all probably be either senior citizens or caregivers.
If loopholes in policies are not dealt with promptly, problems concerning caregivers will only get worse. It is important to realise that tragedies involving caregivers are not irresolvable. What is needed is an increase of resources from the community, and an improved set of medical-social policies.
Our policy research on local health system reforms has always been based on a people-centred and primary-care-led integrated service framework. This involves a meticulous allocation of healthcare human resources, in which informal caregivers are crucial parts. Precisely, the notion of health coproduction emphasises the support and participation of caregivers, social workers and volunteers.
Challenges for caregiver policy
The scope for policies on caregivers is extensive, spanning from the re-definition and recognition of the status of caregivers, to professional support and reliefs for caregivers’ mental health and social needs. Accordingly, an array of policy tools can be considered. Popular suggestions include enhancing training, offering regular transportation subsidies, allowing flexible working hours, and the creation of a comprehensive and easily accessible information portal for caregivers.
Concerned groups within the community are also urging the government to reassess the quota for local rehabilitation and residential respite services and ensure their affordability to low-income families. Other proposals include uplifting the role of domestic helpers in caring for the elderly, and strengthening support for the development and promotion of gerontechnology.
It is true the government’s cautious approach may be related to the fact that many resources have already been scattered into individual ageing, rehabilitation and family policies. Under a long standing model of passively relying on social service groups to provide regular services, it is long due for the government to re-evaluate caregiver policies. Since the Secretary for Labour and Welfare Dr. Law Chi-kwong mentioned in his blog in 2019 to embark on new policy research for caregivers, the community is still waiting. With periodic family tragedies serving as painful reminders, we hope the government can take caregivers more seriously in future policies.