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22 Feb 2019 3:29
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  •   Home > News > International

    Christmas Island's elderly face crisis with nowhere to turn in their twilight years

    With an ageing population but no dedicated aged care facility on Christmas Island, its Chinese community is worried that a crisis is brewing if nothing is done.

    Things do not really kick off at Christmas Island's Poon Saan club until at least 9:00pm, when a dozen or so of its older members move from the parlour to the mahjong room.

    The mood is relaxed, but the men and women seated four to a table barely look up during rapid play — sometimes until the wee hours.

    Ang Ah Him, 87, has been coming here every night for as long as he can remember. Probably longer.

    He never gambles, and instead comes to enjoy the company of old friends with whom to chat and "pass the time".

    "There's nowhere else to go on the island," he said through a translator.

    Mr Ang, like many of his peers at the Poon Saan club, is approaching an age where he and his wife may no longer be able to look after themselves.

    Christmas Island, where Chinese culture has shaped society since human settlement, is facing a looming crisis: how to care for its elderly.

    For the seniors on the island, many who have spent their lives working in the mines, there is no dedicated residential aged care facility.

    Many who can no longer live alone must consider a move to Perth, where there is a sizable community of ex-islanders.

    "At the moment, aged care is not really looked into on Christmas Island," said Patrick Chan, the Poon Saan club president.

    "If we don't do something now, in five or 10 years' time, we will have a bigger problem. It'll be too late."

    Christmas Island is a remote outpost in the Indian Ocean, a 45-minute flight south of Java and four hours northwest of Perth.

    A significant number of the island's population are people of Chinese and Malay descent, whose forebears were first brought to the island as indentured mine workers a century ago.

    Today, islanders of Chinese ancestry in particular make up more than a fifth of its 1,800 residents.

    A cultural responsibility

    Especially within the Chinese community on the island, elders are seen as early pioneers, whose sacrifices helped build the island's society.

    It was the exploited Chinese and Malay workers whose demands for fair wages paved the way for the equality that the island enjoys today.

    "There's a sizable Chinese community on the island that is over the age of 60. They've been labouring for a large amount of their life." Mr Chan said.

    "They're now at the age where we have to ask the next generation to look after them."

    In Chinese culture, the notion of filial piety — the young taking care of the old — rings just as true on Christmas Island

    It is owed to older islanders, particularly retired Chinese and Malay workers, that they stay on the island and be cared for, said Regine Andersen, a former secretary of the island's women's association.

    "You can't afford the airfares to fly backwards and forwards to be with your loved ones," she said.

    "Justbecause people are aged, doesn't mean they don't deserve to have quality of life and having loving family members around them."

    No immediate plans

    The federal Department of Infrastructure, which administers the territory, said in a statement it currently offered respite and temporary residential, as well as in-home and palliative care.

    A spokesperson said the department had commissioned consultants to review health services on the island, including its aged care options, with a final report due in the first half of this year.

    The island's administrator, Natasha Griggs, said she hoped the report would be sensitive to the island's distinctive cultural profile.

    "[We need to make] sure the consultants that they've engaged have a speciality around the cultural sensitives around aged care," Ms Griggs said.

    "What we think on the mainland as Europeans could be quite different to what the Chinese and the Malay communities think."

    A solution can't come soon enough for Mr Chan and the members of the Poon Saan club.

    "You're paying $3,000 plus to fly over here [from Perth] return. It will cost you less to drive down to [Perth suburbs] Stirling or Fremantle to get care," he said.

    For the time being, 87-year-old Mr Ang has no plans to leave Christmas Island.

    "Christmas Island has been a home to me," he said. "I live here and I will die here."


    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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