‘Listening volunteers’ give elderly renewed will to live

by Hisanobu Wakabayashi

SAPPORO (Kyodo) Rising from her bed, a woman in her 80s squeezed the hands of Reiko Osawa with tears in her eyes when they met for the first time in nine months at a home for the elderly in Hokkaido.

Osawa, 56, is a volunteer who visits elderly people and listens to what they have to say. She had visited the woman, who was living alone, for more than two years until last February, when family matters of her own prevented her from continuing the visits.

The physically weakened woman had repeatedly said she wanted to stay home because she could hold out thanks to Osawa’s visits, but after February, she was hospitalized and transferred to a facility for the aged.

Not a day passed when Osawa didn’t think of her elderly friend, and she decided to make the time to see her, visiting the facility in November.

“I don’t know anyone here, and I want to die because of loneliness,” the woman confided as Osawa listened intently.

As Osawa was leaving, the woman said, “Thank you very much for today.” Osawa squeezed her hand and said, “I’ll come again.”

She said the visit made her determined to continue volunteering as long as it brings warmth to senior citizens.

Whole Family Care Association, a Tokyo-based group formed in 1999 to popularize the activities of “listening volunteers,” holds training lessons across the country and has seen more than 2,000 volunteers pass through its doors since its establishment.

Due to the declining birthrate, more elderly are living alone, partly because the size of families has shrunk.

“Merely listening to them becomes spiritual care, increasing their will to live,” said Kinue Suzuki, 62, president of the association.

Midori Shiota, 56, of Chiba Prefecture, began participating as a listening volunteer in 2003. What got her interested was her own experience with her husband, who was temporarily unable to work due to a traffic accident.

One of her friends spent time listening to what she had to say, and she found her mind was calmed by just talking about her stress. Believing she too could brighten the life of another person, she decided to enroll for volunteer training.

Once a month, Shiota visits the nearby home of a woman in her 70s who is left alone during the day because her family must work. For one hour, she listens to her stories, including those about how her hearing trouble exacerbates her lack of friends and the death of a child many years ago.

The woman had largely confined herself to the home, but recently she has begun going to a facility for the elderly that offers nursing care services. “I’ve made friends there and I treat them to goodies that I make,” she said brightly.

To her elderly friends, Shiota says, “I’m here by your side.” She believes that is what listening is all about and is encouraged to hear people truly enjoy being with her.