Our Lives | JAPAN LITE

Time to banish old people to the countryside?

I couldn’t help but gasp upon reading the Japan Policy Council’s new recommendations to help take the aging population burden off Tokyo: “Encourage the elderly to move to the countryside, where the facilities are less crowded and there are more spaces for those needing full time care.”

Really?

The logic behind sending the elderly packing, which I willingly and unceremoniously dub “Operation Obasuteyama” (playing on the myth that in the old days they used to take old women out to Mount Obasute to let them die so they would not be a burden on the family), is that it will “alleviate the issue of the declining population in rural areas, stimulate regional consumption and maintain as well as create employment.”

Perhaps the council thought that the few young people actually living in the countryside wouldn’t voice their opinions, but we’re going to, right now.

My small island of 500 or so people in Okayama is a model community for the elderly. Shiraishi Island is only 5 km around with most houses concentrated around the port, so it’s just a short 500-meter walk to the grocery store, post office, doctor’s clinic and the ferry terminal to catch a boat to the mainland.

Many of the elderly grow vegetables in their own gardens so they not only stay active and healthy, but save money by being fairly self-sufficient. There is a community center where they can meet for lectures, exercise and other senior-oriented programs and, best of all, they are included in the local school programs teaching the elementary school students the history and traditions of the island.

Sound ideal? It is, but only because these people have lived here their whole lives. This is their hometown and the place their children and grandchildren come back to visit at o-Bon. The heart and soul of the family, for generations, has been based here. Picture perfect towns like ours live on in nostalgic TV dramas and enka songs.

I suspect that the elderly living in Tokyo have lived in the capital their entire lives and feel very attached to their neighborhoods and communities too, with their children and grandchildren close by to give them a structure to live within. Take those factors away, and life becomes meaningless.

Operation Obatsutayama is basically saying, “Hey old people! Move out to the countryside where you’ll have no friends or family! Do it for Tokyo.”

Unfortunately, through the eyes of policymakers there are more immediate concerns to deal with, mainly the upcoming elderly population explosion in Tokyo and the estimated 800,000 to 900,000 more workers that will be needed for nursing care by 2025. There simply aren’t going to be enough beds in long-term care facilities to meet the growing demand.

But Japan’s countryside is dealing with a huge portion of their population being elderly already. Contrary to the theory that people moving here will alleviate depopulation, they’ll actually accelerate the declining population as it happens in even greater numbers. Forget more health workers, what we’ll need is more pallbearers!

I doubt that increasing the elderly population will help economic recovery either because old people don’t spend much money, and if every time a relative has to drop ¥30,000 or more for a plane ticket or shinkansen ride just to pop in to visit, it’ll happen far less frequently.

On the bright side, Operation Obatsuteyama may more evenly distribute health care workers around the country, but the city life has always eclipsed the stigma of the countryside in Japan. This nation has a long way to go to teach the virtues of a slower life, less consumption and healthy living if it expects healthcare workers and their families to move out to the sticks.

Having just come back from the mainland from visiting my 89-year-old friend Man-chan in a long-term care facility, I can tell you that what the elderly need most is more ways to allow them to live out their years at home. Man-chan lived by himself on the island until he was 88. He was up and dancing, doing his usual hip gyrations, at the cherry blossom festival just last year. Then, in fall, he had a mild stroke and is no longer ambulatory. He has to use a wheelchair to get around. He is mentally sharp and needs no fancy hospital electronics to hook up to. However, since he needs someone to cook for him and bathe him, his only choice is to live in a bleak care facility on the mainland with a TV as his only companion. His toilet is a freestanding plastic contraption with a holding tank that sits next to his bed. He never gets out of his pajamas.

The building has no community area, no cafeteria, no rehabilitation rooms. The facility is far from the ferry terminal, so most of his elderly friends can’t easily visit him. He gets weaker and weaker because he lies in a bed all day with nothing to do. As a result, he is now starting to deteriorate mentally, too.

What Japan needs is to offer more ways to help seniors stay in their own environments (homes, neighborhoods, families), not to send them to far away provinces where they’ll be even more lonely and irrelevant.

Let’s respond to the needs of seniors, not to the needs of the system, which already marginalizes the elderly.

Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Send all your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp.

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