November 18, 2011

JAPAN: Aging of Japanese society must be dealt with now

TOKYO, Japan / The Asahi Shimbum / Opinion / November 17, 2011

Financially strapped senior citizens who live alone constitute a growing segment of society.

The number of Japanese on welfare reached a record 2.05 million in July.

People aged 65 or older who live by themselves accounted for around 30 percent of the total. This worked out to about 500,000 such citizens in fiscal 2009, up 80 percent from a decade ago.

A recent fire at an apartment building in Tokyo's bustling Shinjuku Ward, which left four dead, threw a spotlight on the grim reality of how such people live quietly in a nook of a teeming metropolis

Of the 23 residents in the building, 19 were recipients of welfare benefits under the livelihood protection program. Most of them were senior citizens.

The maximum monthly rent permitted for people on welfare is slightly above 50,000 yen ($650). At that level, there are not many offerings in large cities.

Inevitably, most welfare recipients in cities live in old and cramped wooden apartments.

This situation may not be so bad as long as they can live by themselves. But as they grow older, many eventually reach a point where they need nursing care.

In urban areas that had in influx of people from rural areas during the era of fast economic growth, the number of poor and elderly citizens who live alone and need nursing care will grow rapidly in the coming years.

Meanwhile, family and community ties in cities are becoming increasingly weaker.

The question is whether this nation's public welfare programs, like the livelihood protection and nursing care insurance programs, can keep pace with such social changes.

In March 2009, a fire at a residential care facility for the elderly in Gunma Prefecture killed 10 of the residents. It was later found that many of the residents were aged recipients of welfare and nursing care benefits who had been moved into the facility from Tokyo. Such a tragedy should not be allowed to happen again. Steps should also be taken to make it possible even for elderly people without family to remain in their current communities.

Furusato no Kai, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization, provides support to more than 1,100 destitute people. Their ages vary, and the assistance is not limited to the elderly. The group creates "housing with aid" for seniors who need nursing care by, for instance, remodeling existing apartments.

The group takes full advantage of the nursing care insurance and other public welfare programs for its activities to support needy seniors. But that is not enough to guarantee that nobody falls through the cracks.

The group has created a system to pay wages to young people it supports for doing tasks to help impoverished elderly citizens living alone.

This may involve serving as a conversation partner when an elderly person feels lonely or cleaning their rooms and taking out the garbage for them.

This plan provides support for elderly people without family and at the same time creates jobs for young people within the same community. There should be more of this kind of program to support the needy.

Because they raise funds for their operations from the welfare benefits received by people they support, such groups look troublingly similar to dubious businesses that prey upon the needy.

It is vital for these groups to keep their organizations open to examination and monitoring by third parties.

There are many things that neighbors can do for seniors living by themselves, such as keeping watch over them or talking to them.

The rapid graying of Japan is posing huge challenges to our society. We cannot simply leave it to others to deal with the problem.
Copyright The Asahi Shimbun Company.
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