On a recent bus trip in Indonesia, I struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to me who told me he was Malaysian but living in Australia, which prompted me to admit that I was American but living in Japan. This seemed to pique his interest as he next said, “I am very interested to see how Japan deals with its aging problem.” He went on to tell me that nations such as Malaysia were watching to see how Japan copes with aging and that it would predict how other Asian nations deal with the same issues.
If the future has a color, for many Asian countries, it’s definitely gray. Or at the very least silver streaked. Japan is often recognized as the fastest graying country in the (developed) world, with people 65 and over accounting for 26.7 percent of the population.
The truth is, however, that other Asian nations are close behind. Even countries with high immigration rates are facing aging populations. In 2015, Singapore’s population was made up of 13.7 percent senior citizens, but these 65 and overs are predicted to increase to 17.7 percent by 2020 and almost 27 percent by 2030. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is not waiting until it’s too late to address the future demographic and is already promoting more flexible work schedules and quality child care to encourage young people to produce more children.
Malaysia, by the year 2020, will have more than 3.3 million people over the age of 60, about 9.8 percent of its population compared to a mere 5.2 percent of the populace in 1970.
Add to all this lower fertility rates, China’s previous one-child policy and Indonesia’s long-time “Two children are enough” campaign that have resulted in inadvertently tipping the population toward the more senescent.
There are clearly not enough young people to contribute to the coffers for the health care and pensions relied upon by the elderly. And, of course, people are living longer than ever.
So, what is Japan doing right? A robust discussion commenced with my new Malaysian passenger cohort, covering everything from robotics to health care, and medical tourism to guest worker programs, and housing surpluses.
But when it comes to health care and pensions, what Japan does best is unrecognized by most developed countries. It’s something so intrinsic and natural to the Japanese that it’s not even considered an aging strategy. Japan’s furusato, (hometown communities that people often return to after they retire) provide a significant number of the elderly with a lifestyle and community that is healthy and affordable, even on a meager pension. Those who grew up in these small country towns may have left 40 or 50 years ago for jobs in the cities, but what awaits them should they return is the family heritage home (no rent), a much more affordable lifestyle than exists in the city, a core group of families (often relatives) they and their parents have known for generations, childhood friends who are either still living there or who have also returned and, of course, shared memories and a sense of belonging. Sounds a bit like the ideal retirement home, doesn’t it?
On the island where I live in the Seto Inland Sea, the population has dwindled from 2,000 in its heyday to just under 500 denizens now. But the decrease in citizenry shouldn’t diminish the community’s importance. With 60 percent of the residents over 60 years old, the aged live together and help one another in everyday tasks.
Many elderly till their own vegetable gardens well into their 80s and 90s. Others take up bonsai, traditional weaving or doll-making. These mellowing citizens pass on valuable traditions by participating in ancient local festivals, and by welcoming their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren into their large country homes during key holidays such as o-Bon in August and New Year’s Day. Community support, a sense of camaraderie, and the staving off of loneliness and depression are key for those in their golden years. Much coordinated effort ensures each person has a stake in the community and that each is assured of being a valued member.
Share houses in Japan that replicate this sense of community are popular because residents can remain independent while knowing they can at times turn to neighbors for help.
Professional care workers will tell you that the best thing for those getting on in years is to stay in their own homes as long as possible. Once they enter any kind of assisted-living facility, their decline is much more rapid because they no longer have to perform tasks on their own such as cooking, cleaning and other menial exercises that are vital to maintaining mental and physical health. Furusato communities play a decisive role in keeping their venerable citizens out of hospitals and care homes for as long as possible.
On our island, we’ve had a couple Alzheimers-afflicted patients who have been able to stay in their houses for an extra year or two because of the secure community environment. Those with dementia can still walk to the local grocery store and buy a ready-made bento lunch and dinner rather than risk the dangers of using the gas stove in their house. Traditional phone lines are still hooked up so they can keep in touch with family without having to rely on charging mobile phones or learning new technology.
In addition, the health department sends care workers to our island twice a week to help the enfeebled with home details. Although our island doctor himself passed away at an advanced age several years ago, the government now sends a physician from the mainland twice a week to ensure medical attention for all.
While the traditional extended family living under one roof has rapidly disintegrated in Japan, the furusato communities have filled in some of the gap.
Let’s hope the government continues to value these small rural communities for the role the play keeping their senescent residents happy and healthy, while proving less of a burden on the health and pension systems.
All eyes are on Japan.
Amy Chavez is the author of “Amy’s Guide to Best Behavior in Japan: Do it Right and Be Polite!” (Stone Bridge Press).