Global life expectancy has risen by more than five years since the start of the century (1) World Health Organisation website accessed April 2019. Average global life expectancy at birth rose by 5.5 years between 2000 and 2016 to 72 years (2) and this is a wonderful thing. It means more years to enjoy with family and friends.
Demographic change also poses challenges. The number of people in the world aged 60 and above is predicted to reach 2.1 billion by the middle of this century (3). While some may enjoy good health well into their later years, others will increasingly need support.
Societies all around the world are grappling with the implications. When it comes to providing care, what are the roles of the state, individual and family? Can public services be redesigned to help us live independently and fulfilling lives for longer?
Hong Kong at the sharp end
Hong Kong is at the sharp end of these challenges. Around one in six residents is already aged 65 or over, according to local authorities. More than 40,000 Hongkongers of working age care for older relatives.
While caring can be profoundly rewarding, caregivers may also find it difficult to combine their family responsibilities with paid work. This makes it harder for them to support themselves and plan for their own retirement. Businesses may also lose out on skills and experience if caregivers drop out of the workforce.
As Hong Kong ages further, these challenges will become acute. According to a new study, Eldercare Hong Kong: The projected Societal Cost of Eldercare in Hong Kong 2018 to 2060, backed by HSBC Life, the number of older people needing support by 2040 is expected to more than double, with the direct cost of this ‘eldercare’ rising from HK$38.8 billion (US$5 billion) in 2018 to HK$126 billion (US$16 billion) in 2040, to HK$222.4 billion (US$28 billion) by 2060.
The indirect costs to employers and informal caregivers – in terms of lost productivity, skills and opportunities – will also rise steeply.
No easy solutions
There are no easy solutions. The new study suggests practical steps that various organisations can take to support caregivers and their families.
Public authorities can help by drawing up long-term a strategy for family caregivers. It is important to acknowledge the valuable role that caregivers play, and to give them assistance. This could include access to professional training or funding for occasional respite care.
Employers can create a welcoming culture for people who combine work and caring. Being open to requests for flexible and home working could help businesses retain skilled people who might otherwise quit. Employers can also provide resources for staff networks, so employees with caring responsibilities can support each other.
The role of insurance
Insurance providers have a role to play, too. They have traditionally helped parents make provision for their children. Today, the industry should perhaps also be developing new products that enable children to make provision for parents.
Meanwhile, there is a gap in the Hong Kong insurance market in relation to products that allow customers to pay premium today for guaranteed medical coverage and care support services in the future (i.e. on a non-annually renewable basis). Industry providers in Hong Kong could learn from some of the long-term care solutions pioneered in the US and western Europe which allow customers to anticipate their own potential need for future care.
Last but not least, individuals should think about how they can prepare, both psychologically and financially, for potentially becoming caregivers themselves. Understanding the sources of support available to them could help them achieve peace of mind for the long term.
Many communities around the world need to deal with the consequences of ageing in the future, but Hong Kong is among the first to face the reality with its longest life expectancy in the world. This is a challenge. It is also an opportunity to show how – with the right planning – an ageing society can be a thriving society.
The author is Edward Moncreiffe who is Hong Kong chief executive of HSBC Life.
1 World Health Organisation website, April 2019 https://www.who.int/gho/mortality_burden_disease/life_tables/situation_trends_text/en/
3 UN World Population Prospects: the 2017 Revision; see example figure 3 on page 6: https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/publications/pdf/ageing/WPA2017_Highlights.pdf
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