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A confused future for our baby boomers

by Philip Brasor

No generation in the history of mankind is more reviled than that of the baby boomers, who grew up during the age of mass media. Raised on TV and glossy magazines, they connected to a world their parents knew almost nothing about, and with that experience turned from youthful explorers of expanded possibilities into self-centered jerks who plundered and exploited everything that had been created for their benefit. At least, that’s the historical perspective held by subsequent generations who now have to contend with the economic, political and environmental ruin they left behind. But the worst may be yet to come.

In the summer, the health ministry released the results of a survey that claimed 4.62 million Japanese people over the age of 65 suffered from serious cognitive dysfunction, and that if you factored in seniors who had “mild” dementia, meaning they were more than usually forgetful but could fend for themselves, the number exceeded 8 million. The ministry included these milder cases with the serious ones because senility is considered a progressive condition. Once you start on that downward slope you never hike back up. That’s why people with functional dementia are referred to as yobigun, or “reserves.” They are standing by to join the army of the eternally confused.

The media has spent six months absorbing this shocking statistic, and recently there has been a flurry of reports on the dire consequences, not only for those who will soon be going, not so gently, into that good night, but for society as a whole, since Japan seems to be at the vanguard of what is shaping up to be a planetary march. This dubious distinction is demographic in nature. The baby-boom cohort in Japan represents a brief window of time in which a huge number of humans were born, between 1947 and 1949, after which the Japanese government, overwhelmed by the need to feed and shelter an entire population left hungry and homeless by war, did everything in its power to stifle reproduction. The dankai no sedai (mass generation) barrelled through their youthful rebellious phase en masse, provided a huge market for Japan’s innovative consumer culture, served as cannon fodder for the country’s corporate juggernaut and brought forth the bubble economy of the late ’80s with their appetites.

It is this latter achievement that makes them the objects of resentment for younger Japanese, since it is assumed they wrecked the economy for everyone unlucky enough to be born after them. And now, as they enter the last phase of their lives, the boomers are placing an even greater burden on their children, who will have to pay through the nose to babysit them.

The burden isn’t just economic, though looking at the issue in money terms is the easiest way to understand its impact. A feature in last week’s Shukan Gendai opened with a testimonial from a Tokyo apartment building superintendent, who said that seven of her 20 units are occupied by elderly people. Three are senile.

“I ask them for rent and they say, ‘I already paid,’ and accuse me of trying to take advantage of them because they’re old,” she says. “They’ve already had their electricity and gas turned off.”

It’s not that they don’t have the money to pay their bills. It’s just that they have no one to help them manage their affairs. They receive meals from a social service, so they can survive, but when the superintendent suggests they ask for public help for other matters — help that is readily available — they insist they can take care of themselves. “If this situation continues we’ll have to kick them out,” she adds.

The health ministry estimates that some 3 million people suffering from dementia need to be institutionalized, but nationwide capacity is only 1.5 million. That means only half of those whose condition is serious enough for full-time care are receiving it. The number of senile is increasing at a faster rate than local governments can build facilities to house them, which means families and home caregivers take on a disproportionate part of the load. The labor ministry estimates that it costs the health management system between ¥810,000 and ¥1.5 million a year to care for a senile individual, and since dementia is incurable and progressive, these costs will go up as their ranks increase after the boomers turn 70.

Turnover among caregivers, whether they work in group homes or visit patients, is high. According to the Young Welfare Workers Network, 39 percent of new caregivers, whether full-time or part-time, quit within a year of being hired, and the overwhelming reason is low pay. As a result of this shortage, the children of senile elders have to assume responsibility for the parents’ well-being. A recent Fuji TV documentary focused on middle-aged people who had quit their jobs in order to care for parents full time. These people live on their savings and whatever pensions their parents receive, with little hope of returning to the careers they left. The Gendai article mentions a couple in their 50s who have lived apart for 7 years. He takes care of his mother in Tokyo, and she her father in Hokkaido.

But there’s another aspect of the crisis that has received little media attention, though an “NHK Special” aired several weeks ago about a shortage of resources in Sumida Ward, Tokyo, touched on it when it compared a woman with cognitive disabilities stubbornly refusing help from social workers to a man who quietly died by himself in his apartment because he didn’t want to go to a group home. Do these people have the right to be left alone? Can local governments move them to facilities, commandeer their assets or force them to take medication against their will? Even if it’s deemed to be for their own good, and the good of the community? One thing about boomers is that, for better or worse, they’ve continually changed the social landscape over time. If anyone is going to rally for the rights of the doddering, it’s them.