September 9, 2010

JAPAN: Where is grandma? The lonesome life of Japanese senior citizens

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SELANGOR, Malaysia / The Sun Daily / International News  / September 9, 2010

No industrialised country in the world is ageing as fast as Japan. Thanks to a diet that includes foods like sushi, the Japanese enjoy a long life expectancy, but the negative side of this is that many die die alone, sometimes even without anyone noticing they are gone.

That appeared to have happened to Sogen Kato. No-one knows exactly how long he lay dead in his house before neighbours found him. When they arrived to celebrate his 111th birthday, they instead found his corpse, which they described as "mummified".

The date on the most recent newspaper found in his home was November 5, 1978, raising the possibility that he actually died more than 30 years ago.

While police followed up on suspicions that the next of kin kept his death secret all these years in order to continue collecting his retirement checks, Japanese media reported another similar case only a few days later. This one involved Japan's oldest woman, 113-year-old Fusa Furuya.

After Kato's sensational case came to light, authorities wanted to check in on Furuya to find out how she was doing. They discovered that no one knew where she was. Furuya's 79-year-old daughter, who is registered as living with her mother, apparently had no idea.

She said that the last time she spoke with her mother was in 1986, according to media reports. The daughter believed that her mother moved in with her brother in the nearby province of Chiba.

Cases like these are bringing to light the situation of elderly people in Japan where women have a life expectancy of 86.4 years, the highest in the world. Japanese men average 79.5 years.

More than 40,000 Japanese have reached the centenarian milestone, and nearly 30 million people — about a quarter of the population of Japan — are over 65.

The population has been shrinking since 2005 and along with it Japan's workforce. In the medium term, there is a threat of a shortage of qualified workers.

There are many factors contributing to high life expectancy in Japan. One is the progress made in geriatric medicine, particularly in the treatment of cancer, heart disease and strokes, the most prevalent causes of death.

In addition to their traditional low-fat diet, the Japanese live in a secure and relatively rich country. But a dark side is that many Japanese are alone in their twilight years.

Younger people used to take their parents as they aged into their own homes, but the current trend is a return to the nuclear family, leaving many elderly people on their own.

The migration to large cities such as Tokyo has meant that the elderly are left behind. Many areas of the country are literally dying out. While in the countryside community services often are intact and people help each other, the situation in medium-size and larger cities is often different.

The circumstances of both the Kato and Furuya case remain unclear. Officials say they tried repeatedly to visit Kato, but relatives would not allow them into his home.

They were told that the old man didn't want to receive visitors and that he withdrew to his room because he wanted to live a dire existence as a "living buddha".

Whatever the truth in that case, it's clear that many elderly people in Japan live an isolated life. The two cases have received so much attention from the media that the government has had to take up the matter.

The situation of many elderly people and the fact that many of them live alone is a serious subject for the authorities, said Akira Nagatsuma, the country's health minister.

The government is considering how to ensure that the authorities register where elderly people live. They also believe it is important to consider measures that would allow people who live such long lives to continue to be integrated within their communities.

Some rural areas use loudspeakers to call on all authorities to be alert when an elderly person is missing. In some communities these calls go out nearly every day. — dpa

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