This is the third in a five-part series on Japan’s population woes caused by its graying society and low birthrate.
Like many people who care for elderly family members at home, Norio Watanabe, 51, struggled to deal with the physical and mental burdens of looking after his father, who had dementia.
For about four years until his father’s death in 2014, everyday life for the single Watanabe was packed with care and work. He woke up at 3 a.m. to prepare a special meal for his father, who had a kidney disease, and changed his diaper before heading for work at a food catering company.
When he went to bed at night, he always left the door to his room open so he would not miss the sound of his father moving or calling for help. The only enjoyment he had to himself was to drop by at a local ramen shop on his way home from the grocery store.
“It was tough. I knew it was my responsibility to take care of my father, but it got me down. Sometimes, I was barely able to sleep,” said Watanabe, who lives in Katsushika Ward, Tokyo. “There was no escape from reality. . . . When I was driving my car to work, the thought of driving on the wrong side of the road crossed my mind, so that I could be released from everything.”
In desperate need of help, Watanabe joined a support group for people who care for family members with dementia, but he said it was difficult for him to speak up in a group composed mostly of women.
He only found relief after joining Oyaji no Kai (Association of Old Men), a group based in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo, of men who take care of aging family members at home.
“It was an enormous help. By finding out about other men in similar situations, and by talking about what I was going through, I felt at ease,” Watanabe said.
As Japan’s population continues to shrink and age, more men are finding themselves in a similar plight. And the number is expected to keep rising, given that in 2025 the postwar baby boomers — born between 1947 and 1949 — will be aged over 75 and account for nearly 20 percent of the population.
With the rise in single-person households and women keeping their jobs after marriage, taking care of ailing family members — once seen as a woman’s job — is becoming a man’s responsibility as well.
According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, men made up 31.3 percent of the main care givers for aging family members at home in 2013, up from 23.6 in 2001. The total number of such men exceeded 1.3 million, the ministry said.
Observers say male carers tend to face difficulties in areas different from women, such as cooking and purchasing women’s underwear. But as many men tend to shy away from joining get-togethers and try to solve everything on their own, they are often isolated, with their suffering little noticed by others. Sometimes such isolation pushes them to the point of abusing their elderly family members, experts say.
Given the rise in the number of male carers, support groups like Oyaji no Kai are increasingly important, analysts say, as men tend to find it more easy to participate in and speak up about their true feelings at male-only gatherings.
“I’ve seen many men dedicated to (caring) for their family members who were isolated without a connection to society,” said Masatoshi Tsudome, a professor of sociology at Ritsumeikan University who serves as secretary-general of the National Network for Male Carers and Supporters.
Tsudome, who previouslyworked for the Kyoto branch of the Social Welfare Council, a government-funded liaison group that promotes community and volunteer activities, said most of the people who join support groups are women, even though over a quarter of the people who take care of ailing family members are men.
On those rare occasions when men have shown up for a gathering held by the council, they generally don’t say a single word and just sit there with a grim expression, he said.
Unlike women who enjoy chatting with fellow members, these men obviously lack social skills and are unable to release their burdens, Tsudome said. By speaking to them individually later, he has learned they have enormous difficulties with tasks like cooking, doing laundry and purchasing underwear for their ailing wives or mothers. Some have even found it problematic to shop in grocery stores along with swarms of housewives.
“They were struggling with things that I’ve never heard from female carers,” Tsudome said.
Unfortunately, many men keep such struggles to themselves do not seek help, he said.
At men-only gatherings, they are more able to voice their honest sentiments without feeling embarrassed, and for many, like Watanabe, the meetings have become places to reveal their mental burden, Tsudome said.
“These are the places where they can whine about their situations and where they can listen to what others are feeling,” he said. “They realize that they are not alone, that there are many others who are in similar situations.”
Tsudome also said the government-run nursing care insurance system for the elderly introduced in 2000 should be changed to assist aging people as well as lessen the burden on family members who look after them.
Under the system, elderly people in need of nursing care who have a family member living with them are, in principle, denied access to domestic helpers. This means that even if the family member has a full-time job, they need to shoulder the entire household burden, whereas elderly people who live apart from family members qualify for services such as cooking, cleaning and laundry.
The system was apparently created based on an outdated household model centering around a full-time housewife young enough and with sufficient physical strength to do everything by herself, Tsudome said.
The reality is that more people today work full time while taking care of aging family members, and many are in desperate need of help, he said. If men with no housekeeping experience could get such assistance, their burdens would be significantly lighter, he said.
“Some people may choose to move their elderly relative into a nursing care facility, while others may attempt to juggle their job and nursing care, or quit their job to take care of their family full time.” Support must be provided for all care receivers and caregivers regardless of the choices they make, he said.