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Problems faced by aging population

Publication Date : 27-10-2012


The deadly fire that killed 12 elderly people at a Tainan hospital this week has highlighted not just public safety issues but also the urgent need for all social institutions to make changes to accommodate our aging population.

The government-run hospital that was hit by the blaze is perhaps the epitome of Taiwan's demographic changes. All the victims killed in the tragedy were from the nursing home on the second floor, management of which the hospital outsourced to a private operator. Also worth noting is that the fire started in a storeroom that had been converted from an obstetrician ward.

Birth rates in Taiwan have been low, and many smaller hospitals apparently have decided that keeping an obstetrician department would not be realistic or profitable. In fact, the medical institution has been lamenting the falling number of medical students who want to become obstetricians.

And it makes sense for hospitals to transform their services to cater to the aging population. But the Tainan tragedy shows that much more needs to be done than just renaming a section as a nursing home.

We are not accusing the Tainan hospital of breaking the law or failing to make arrangements as required by law. But perhaps it is the law itself that is inadequate to deal with such demographic changes.

The fire erupted in the early hours when the hospital was apparently understaffed to handle such an emergency. Most, if not all, of the elderly patients needed help to escape and there was clearly not enough to go around.

The hospital is said to have just passed a routine safety check by the authorities. If that is the case — and if there were no irregularities involved in the check — it means its arrangements and management complied with the law.

It does not matter whether it is a case of arson — for which a suspect has been arrested — or an accident; the point is hospitals must be well prepared for such an emergency — not just for the general public, but specifically for the elderly, who are the most vulnerable and helpless in such circumstances.

The law governing safety in public places, particularly at hospitals, may need to change. And there are a lot of other laws and conditions that must also be changed to make Taiwan friendlier to its elderly citizens.

This country's infrastructure is designed for a general public that is healthy and young; or perhaps we should say that many of its unreasonable designs can be tackled more easily by younger people, with the needs of the elderly totally ignored.

Look at the arcades in front of buildings; they are usually in different heights. Look at the motorcycle-packed sidewalks. It is not hard to imagine the difficulty old men and women have negotiating the off-road style urban terrain, and their best solution is usually to walk out on the road, risking being hit by cars.

We have always wondered why there is no building code requiring a level ground for all arcades.

These are just some of the little things that make Taiwan not as friendly to elderly people as we would like it to be.

Many of us may be already changing our mentality, realising the need to change to accommodate the aging nation.

It's ironic that the deadly fire occurred on Double Ninth Day — the ninth day of the ninth month on the Chinese lunar calendar when we are supposed to show our respect to the elderly.

Double Ninth Day is now seldom observed in Taiwan, and it is not a holiday — which perhaps shows how much respect we give our elderly citizens.


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