Japan’s elderly die alone

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The world’s fastest ageing population is racing against time to prepare for a difficult future. The implications of hyper-ageing are inevitable, and many elderly are already pressed to drastic measures to stay alive.  

By Zofia Reych 

In Japan, low fertility rates combined with the longest life expectancy on the planet have resulted in the world’s highest number of elderly citizens. With more than a quarter of the population now aged 65 or over, the country is facing an unprecedented crisis. It is estimated that within a century some 40% of Japanese will be older than 65; the population pyramid will soon stand on its tip, affecting every aspect of life.

Kodokushi means solitary death

It was a hot summer, and the residents of a small street in Chiba could smell a disruptive stench for severaldays. After consulting a social worker, the firebrigade arrived to break down the door to the apartment of Mr Yamada, 71. His body was taken to the morgue, while cleaners in protective suits and masks started ripping out the tatami mats and everything else contaminated by the offensive odour.

Mr Yamada died a solitary death and this is far from unusual.. There are no accurate statistics of kodokushi, but it is estimated that up to 2,200 die in similar circumstances in Tokyo alone. Their empty homes usually add to the growing pool of abandoned real estate that now accounts for over 14% of all houses in Japan.

These grim statistics are symptomatic of a society where few young care for the many old. Traditionally, children provided for their aging parents, but due to the increasingly individualistic culture, fewer and fewer are willing to do so. In the sixties, 4 in 5 seniors lived with their children, but as more and more are in need of help, the proportion has since halved.

Social insecurity

Generous corporate pensions have never recovered following the bursting of Japan’s economic bubble. Once famed for its extensive social security system, Japan has also seen a cut to government pensions, effectively sentencing nearly half a million elderly to live in poverty.

In a society where being a burden to your family or the state is perceived as shameful, it is suspected that almost five times more seniors don’t apply for additional benefits. Some of those most in need turn to petty crime with the hope of being sent to prison, a source of free lodging and food.

In an attempt to fight the growing problem, in 2000 the authorities introduced the first Japanese long-term-health-care insurance system (LTCI).

The scheme can cover up to 2,900 USD a month, delivered through services rather than cash payouts thus allowing for better allocation of funds. uture pensioners begin paying contributions to the fund in their forties (the system is in part-funded by taxes) and at present, over 6 million people have signed up.

Although “in general, LTCI is working,” alleviating strain on caregivers – one of its primary goals – has reportedly not yet been achieved.

Meanwhile, even the most conservative estimates predict that by 2025 the cost of providing welfare for the elderly will rise to 1.37 trillion USD, accounting for well over a quarter of Japan’s gross national income. And, as the fertility rates continue to plummet, workforce shortages do not bode well for a recovery.

Futuristic solutions for today’s problem

For Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, dealing with the impact of the aging society is one of the pillars of his policy. Abenomics includes boosting fertility rates through better family planning policies and bolstering the workforce through opening borders to foreign talent. However, both these measures fall short as the largely traditional society is still reluctant to change.

Possibly the most economically progressive and politically risky step is reviving the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) through one of the world’s most aggressive investment scheme. However, this is not the only unusual step that the country is willing to take.

Robotics is widely expected to play an important role in providing welfare for the elderly. While the most advanced prototypes are still far from implementation due to their astronomic costs (215,000USD for “The Twendy-One” human-like robot), simpler models are already in use. The Paro seal, with its 5,000USD price tag, already helps to alleviate anxiety in dementia patients not only in Japan, but worldwide.

Today, Japan is just beginning to pay an overdue bill for its long term prosperity. The solutions developed here are likely to shape the policies implemented in the future by other hyper-aging societies; South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and even China, should all be watching closely.