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Caring for the elderly: Hong Kong social club branch managed by young woman who ‘wanted to follow in Jesus’ footsteps’ provides physical and mental health boost

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 14/9/2021
a woman posing in front of a fence: Allie Li of the Woopie Club’s Tseung Kwan O branch says many people feel cut off from society post-retirement, a divide compounded by the widening technology gap between generations. Photo: Kylie Knott Allie Li of the Woopie Club’s Tseung Kwan O branch says many people feel cut off from society post-retirement, a divide compounded by the widening technology gap between generations. Photo: Kylie Knott

Loneliness among the elderly is a growing problem in Hong Kong. Allie Li Sheung-mei has seen it first-hand.

Swaying her arms to a tune by 80s Hong Kong rock band Beyond, Li encourages a group of elderly men and women in front of her to follow suit. Some wave colourful styrofoam pool noodles while others clap their hands.

"Exercises, games and group interactions are a major part of what we do here," says Li.

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The scene is a typical one at the Tseung Kwan O branch of the Woopie Club, a non-profit that provides care services for the city's elderly, a demographic that's on the rise. A report titled "Hong Kong Population Projections 2020-2069" estimates that by 2039, about a third of Hongkongers - or some 2.52 million - will be retirement-aged, up from 1.2 million in 2019.

a man sitting in a room: According to a 2016 census, more than 152,000 people aged 65 and above live by themselves in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP © Provided by South China Morning Post According to a 2016 census, more than 152,000 people aged 65 and above live by themselves in Hong Kong. Photo: SCMP

Li says the Woopie Club's outreach services include meal deliveries, escorting elderly people to hospital appointments, and care for those who are bed- or chair-bound.

But many people, she says, are lonely and just want some company. They feel cut off from society post-retirement, a divide compounded by the widening technology gap between generations.

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"Some elderly people are pessimistic because retirement is a contrast to their working life when they were making money and being productive and exercising their talent ... then, all of a sudden, that daily life is taken away."

Physical and mental health risks have also been compounded by Covid-19, which has isolated many from their family and community.

Li is relatively new to the field of elderly care. A graduate of the Education University of Hong Kong, she studied in Britain and Australia, receiving a master's degree in coaching psychology from the University of Sydney. Since then she has worked in industries from tech to fitness and fashion.

A group of pensioners practice tai chi at Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Xiaomei Chen © Provided by South China Morning Post A group of pensioners practice tai chi at Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

"Those jobs were just stepping stones to where I am now," says the 31-year-old, adding her Christian faith guided her to pursue work that benefits others.

"I wanted to follow in Jesus' footsteps," she says, touching a diamante crucifix hanging from her necklace. "I prayed to see what opportunities arose."

It was 18 months ago when Li stepped up to oversee the establishment of the Tseung Kwan O branch of the club at a time when Covid-19 was taking hold. She soon made an impression and was recently awarded an "Outstanding Employee (Frontline Staff) Award" as part of a biennial programme jointly organised by the Elderly Services Association of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Employment Development Service.

How to help the elderly cope with lockdown anxiety, loneliness

"The sector is a tricky one - some people find it difficult to communicate with the elderly," she says. Not Li. After a session of song and dance, she sits and holds the hand of an elderly woman, a 76-year-old former teacher who in 2017 was diagnosed with dementia.

"My mother visits the centre three to four times a week," says the woman's daughter. Both wish to remain anonymous. "It gives me a break from caring duties and time to spend with children - I have twins.

"Miss Li is amazing. You have to be very patient with seniors."

Also attending the club is 71-year-old Linda Mak Yim-hing. Mak's hands are shaking, a symptom of Parkinson's disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. "The tremors get worse when I'm nervous," she says.

a person taking a selfie in a room: Linda Mak's weekly visits to the Woopie Club to use the exercise bike and talk with friends fill important social gaps. Photo: Kylie Knott © Provided by South China Morning Post Linda Mak's weekly visits to the Woopie Club to use the exercise bike and talk with friends fill important social gaps. Photo: Kylie Knott

While her body is failing her, Mak's mind is active. "I'm studying for a diploma in traditional Chinese medicine - it helps me stay healthy," she says, referring to courses available through the government's continuing education programme.

But like many elderly people, Mak lives alone - according to a 2016 census, more than 152,000 people aged 65 and above live by themselves in Hong Kong - which means her weekly visits to the Woopie Club to use the exercise bike and talk with friends fill important social gaps, interactions that new research says can boost cognitive function.

A US study published in September found that when adults between the ages of 70 and 90 reported more frequent, pleasant social interactions, they also had better cognitive performance on that day and the following two.

How social isolation is making the elderly feel even more alone

"Older adults who are relatively more deprived in certain social interaction experiences could potentially benefit the most from interventions that help to 'boost' their usual levels of social interactions in daily life," said research head Ruixue Zhaoyang, assistant research professor of the Centre for Healthy Ageing at Penn State, in a media release.

To better gauge the needs of the elderly, Hong Kong's once-a-decade population census (the first was held in 1961; in 2021, it was held from June 23 to August 4) for the first time asked respondents about the number of elderly people requiring care within a household, as a way to measure demand for care services and staff.

It's much needed, says Bonnie So, chief executive of the Hong Kong Red Cross.

The Hong Kong Red Cross is also concerned that some seniors from low-income families are reusing their masks, while some wear masks incorrectly. Photo: Hong Kong Red Cross © Provided by South China Morning Post The Hong Kong Red Cross is also concerned that some seniors from low-income families are reusing their masks, while some wear masks incorrectly. Photo: Hong Kong Red Cross

"The prolonged pandemic has impacted vulnerable groups, including the elderly, patients with chronic diseases, low-income groups, ethnic minorities and new immigrants, who face extra challenges due to lack of resources," So says.

She says everyone can play a role in the fight against Covid-19, and not just by taking personal prevention measures. We should also care for and support others, such as elderly people in the family or neighbourhood, she says.

"A simple greeting can make one feel cared for and loved," says So. "Different groups of society are facing various difficulties in the pandemic, and mutual care and support is crucial for us to overcome adversity together."

Dementia, Alzheimer's and the rising toll on working carers

The Red Cross is also concerned that some elders from low-income families are reusing their masks, while some wear them incorrectly or don't know how to use infection-prevention items effectively.

So cites a case of a retired 60-year-old man living in a public housing estate who wore a cheaper children's mask - which only covered a quarter of his face.

Hong Kong Red Cross Psychological Support Service "Shall We Talk": Hotline: 5164 5040 (call directly during office hours: 10am to 6pm, Monday to Friday to make an appointment). WhatsApp: 5164 5040 / Telegram: @hkrcshallwetalk (send a message to make an appointment)

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