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Who's minding mom & pop?

Caring for Japan’s Growing Elderly Population

You have probably read that Japan’s population of approximately 127 million is aging rapidly. You might even know that one out of four Japanese is already aged 65 or over, and that the postwar baby-boomers, known by marketers as the “dangai” generation, which formed the core of the country’s workforce over the last few decades, will be over 75 by 2025. Fortunately, long gone are the days when they would just take old people out to the woods to die. What’s more, if you live in Tokyo or one of the larger cities, and spend a lot of time in Shibuya, you might not notice the tidal wave of old people that is slowly but steadily approaching like the tortoise pursuing the hare. For most young people, still in their prime, old folks are merely an obstacle or a constant reminder to mind your manners, but the times they are a changing.

Where have all the children gone?

You have also probably read that Japanese families are having fewer children, and have been for some time. In fact, Japan’s population is gradually decreasing, and the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare projects it will be down to about 117 million in 2030, and perhaps as low as 97 million by 2050. Government and big business are concerned, no doubt, because this means fewer people will be working and paying taxes as time goes by. But that’s not all. Japanese society as a whole is slowly waking up to an even bigger issue.

As people get older, they require more care. That care requires money and people with time to provide it. In 2000, Japan’s government initiated a new nursing care insurance program, know as Kaigo Hoken, but rising costs are already severely stressing the system. The truly “unnoticed” problem may be the shortage of people capable of providing care and the impact that will have at every level of society.

Who will be taking care of all the old folks? In Japan, as in many cultures, people have traditionally viewed senior care as a family issue. Historically, the eldest son bore the financial responsibility of caring for his aging parents, but, behind the scenes, the daughter-in-law or sisters performed the actual day-to-day duties of cooking, cleaning and hygiene.

From No.1 Son to No.1 Nurse

This model has largely broken down for many reasons. One is that it relied on families being large and nuclear. Not only has the birthrate dropped in the postwar era but families have also become smaller. Based on data compiled through 2010, 56% of all private households were nuclear families, and 37% were considered “elderly households” (composed of members aged 65 or over), according to the Statistical Handbook of Japan 2014. In other words, old folks no longer live with any of their children.

Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, some of the growing concern over who actually feeds and takes care of the elderly is being driven by the increasing percentage of men, as opposed to women, who are shouldering the burden. Over the past few years the media has focused numerous cases of children burdened with caring for their elderly relatives.

In 2009, The Japan Times reported on the case of an experienced technician at a Japanese music company who, at the age of 55, quit his job in Tokyo in order to take care of his aging mother, who lived far away. His company lost the services of a valuable employee and he abruptly ended a successful career only to suffer greater financial difficulties when he couldn’t find suitable employment closer to his mother’s home. Apparently, this is not an unusual scenario.

Left a good job in the city…

Two years ago, the popular NHK investigative TV news program, “Close-up Gendai,” reported that over 2.9 million people were already balancing their working lives with home care-giving. Moreover, around 100,000 men, mostly in their 40s or 50s, were quitting their jobs every year provide care for their relatives.

The problem has become particularly serious at large corporations with overseas operations. When the HR department at a leading trading company ran a survey of their 4,000 employees, they were surprised to learn that 11% were already caring for infirm elderly parents. But what really surprised and shocked management was that over 80% said they might face the need to do so by the end of 2016.

Large corporations are trying to help. Some allow employees to use staggered work hours or flex time. Some provide consultation services, or permit more extended nursing care leave. Nihon Unisys, a major IT company, was reported, to allow employees up to 365 days of nursing leave, according to The Japan Times. But even these programs have limitations because they do not address some of the big issues, such as the financial burden of elderly care. A group called the National Network for Male Carers and Supporters notes that generally nursing leave, in principle, is unpaid.

Sharing cares over coffee

At a much more grass-roots level a budding type of non-profit organization referred to as “carer’s cafés,” is trying to help the more ordinary caregiver by creating local support groups. The founders of one such NPO, called “Carers' Café Arajin feel that average citizens need to have a better understanding of the problem in order to change in the way people see the issues. Participating care-givers gather at support centers where, in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, they can meet other care-givers, share their worries and experiences and pick up helpful information about available services and health-care products.

Support groups are a good idea, but perhaps some other fundamental changes merit reflection, such as a relaxing of visa requirements for non-nurse caregivers or making it easier for foreign elderly care providers and hospice firms to step up to the plate and do business in Japan. No matter what, the grandfather clock is ticking away.