On April 21, the body of former pop singer Yukiko Shimizu was found in a cemetery in Oyamacho, Shizuoka Prefecture, in front of her father’s grave. Police assume that she committed suicide on the spot by inhaling hydrogen sulfide fumes and had probably also tried to kill her 80-year-old mother, who was found beside her unconscious and seated in a wheelchair. There was a note nearby warning about the presence of the deadly gas.
Everyone who knew the 49-year-old said it was just like her to leave such a considerate note, but they were baffled by the suicide itself. The showbiz press interviewed other celebrities who worked with Shimizu back in the 1980s, when she was a bubbly, adorable talent. She was always so cheerful and positive. How could she kill herself?
The Tokyo Shimbun reported that Shimizu’s mother, who suffers from dementia and diabetes, is almost blind and cannot walk. Shimizu’s father died when she was a little girl and her mother raised her and her sister alone. Shimizu quit show business in 2006 in order to take care of her mother full time. For a while, she worked as a telephone operator and availed herself of visiting caregiving services provided by the city of Musashino, where she lived. But she was determined, according to a local welfare official, “to take responsibility for properly caring for her mother herself.” The professional caregiver who helped Shimizu told the paper, “Everyone who looks after a sick older person day after day becomes worn out. They need to talk to others when things get hard.”
According to a survey recently carried out by the health ministry, about 20 percent of people who care for ill family members suffer from depression at least occasionally. Thirty percent of these people over the age of 65 and 20 percent under 65 have contemplated suicide. Many, like Shimizu, quit their jobs in order to take care of loved ones.
It has been 10 years since the national kaigo hoken (caregiving insurance) system went into effect. The system’s purpose is to help provide caregiving services for elderly people in their homes. Tokyo Shimbun interviewed the manager of a caregiving hotline in Suginami Ward who said that the number of calls has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years. The majority of callers are family members who say they are simply overwhelmed and need somebody to talk to.
Shimizu’s situation clearly mirrors that of more and more people as the population ages. However, in covering Shimizu’s death, most media outlets have ignored this angle and treated the tragedy as a celebrity item, thus prompting them to seek out other famous people with kaigo stories.
One of them is singer Yukio Hashi, who has made something of a second career out of explaining how he cared for his senile mother during the last years of her life. He has written books and is in demand as a speaker on the kaigo lecture circuit.
Veteran actor Hiroyuki Nagato often talks about his wife Yoko Minamida, who retired from acting four years ago and was diagnosed with Alzheimers last November. Nagato and Minamida have been married for almost 50 years. To Japanese people of a certain age, they epitomize romantic love, having starred together in the torrid 1955 movie “Taiyo no Kisetsu.”
For decades they were the model of the oshidori fufu (couple together for life), and a documentary about Minamida’s illness was one of the highest-rated TV programs last year.
Nagato is 75 and Minamida 76, so their situation is presented as an example of roro kaigo, which means one elderly person taking care of another. Nagato is willing and even excited to share his bittersweet experiences of caring for a wife who doesn’t always know who he is. He just published a book about it.
Two weeks ago, in what was billed as an “exclusive” interview, he told TBS about his life with Minamida and confessed that the image the public had of their marriage wasn’t accurate. He was never a good husband. While Minamida took care of his bedridden father in the 1990s, he was out carousing. But now that his wife needs him, he has found a new purpose in life.
“I’m grateful that God has given me the chance to take care of her,” he told the TBS interviewers, eyes brimming.
This is kaigo as redemption. Nagato is swept up in the drama of his new role, but while he reminisces with his wife about old love scenes and sweet-talks her into eating her favorite dish (grilled eel), a professional caregiver does the actual work of cleaning Minamida and emptying her bed pans.
Nagato and Hashi receive more than the usual media attention not just because they are famous. Overwhelmingly, it is women who take care of old people, either professionally or as a family obligation, so the media tend to treat male caregivers as didactic exceptions. When famous women are profiled — such as actress Akiko Koyama, who has been taking care of her husband, film director Nagisa Oshima, ever since he first suffered a stroke in 1996 — the coverage is drier.
Interviewed by TBS last week in light of Shimizu’s death, Koyama said that she too has contemplated killing herself, but it was an offhand remark, as if suicide were something all women in her situation thought about. Men, however, tend to erect stoic or sentimental facades.
This distinction wouldn’t matter if the government forthrightly addressed the aging population as a genuine social problem. The kaigo hoken system has so far proved to be an insufficient countermeasure. Wives and daughters still carry the bulk of the caregiving burden.
Yukiko Shimizu had been conditioned to believe she must face her responsibilities cheerfully, because that is what people expected of her. A happy person is not supposed to kill herself. But it takes a superhuman effort to always appear happy under such circumstances, and most of us are merely human.