In the 10 years from 1996 to 2005, the percentage of the elderly (people aged 65 or above) in Hong Kong increased from 10 per cent to 12 per cent. If this trend persists, it is estimated that there will be one elderly person for every 3.7 people in Hong Kong by the year 2033.
Kooyi Kong Mo-yan asks us what we think about those figures. Kooyi took charge of a special summer camp for the elderly organised by the Nursing Society, MS, HKUSU, (avoid abbreviation) the Social Work and Social Administration Society, SSS, HKUSU, the Social Service Group, HKUSU, and the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Welfare Council's Institute of Continuing Education for the Senior Citizens.
"People might think that such a high percentage of elderly people would be a burden to our society, since some can no longer live by themselves independently and have to rely on others, physically and often financially," says Kooyi, who used to be a B.A. student majoring in Linguistics, Social Work and Social Administration. "Besides, the government would have to put a large amount of resources towards looking after this group.
"But this is only one side of a coin. I discovered another side and have different feelings and thoughts on the issue. I found this after I joined the camp, which was "大學生活體驗耆學營" in Chinese.
About 100 elderly people participated in the camp, all of them are members of the Institute. The aim of the programme was to give the volunteers, students of HKU and the elderly people a chance to get along together and learn from each other under the theme of Chinese culture and the Olympics. During the three days, the elderly and the volunteers stayed on the HKU campus and lived in Ho Tung Hall at night. The HKU teachers, the volunteers and the elderly all helped in giving lectures to teach each others. The lecture themes included knowledge of law, financial issues, the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games, first aid and knitting. Other than these, some special events such as a school tour and Fairy Tale Night, which Kooyi organised, were included in the programme to give the elderly campers a good feeling for life at the University.
"We learned from them rather than helped them," Kooyi says. "Although they never had the chance to study at the University, their positive attitude to learning, and to life, is admirable. During these few days, I observed that they were eager to learn in lectures and highly involved in every activity - and much more serious than the university students towards things they participated in.
On the Fairy Tale Night, they were well prepared for the drama performance. There is one thing about that night that really impressed me. When all the dishes were placed on the table, one group of them refused to eat. I thought I had done something wrong with the arrangement that made them dissatisfied. Finally, I found out that they just wanted to keep their stage makeup undestroyed to give the best performance. From this, I can see their seriousness and very impressed about this. Besides, they are full of energy and creativity which lead me a different view on the elderly.
Elderly are often described using negative words like 'burden', 'useless' and 'worthless'. They are thought to be the lowest class in the society and thus they are in need for help. In our mind, this group is physically weak and financially dependent. This is only one side of a coin as I mentioned at the very beginning part.
The other side of the coin that I spoke about is what I could see and feel at the camp. This is a group whom we students can learn from. Even though they are in their golden years, they are keen to keep on learning different things - dancing, penmanship, tai chi, computer lessons etc - during their leisure time. What impressed me most in this camp was their insistence on the idea of 'continued learning' which I think is the most important issues that bring about in this camp.
Participating in social service is a good way to help others. The elderly campers fulfilled their wish of studying and 'graduating' at a university, and took away fond memories. At the same time, the organisers and volunteers learned from them and their experiences, seeing a side of our society that we too often neglect.
Kooyi Kong Mo-yan