Old doesn’t necessarily mean convalescent


A group of elderly women chatting over lunch and devoting the rest of their time to making handicrafts such as dolls and handkerchiefs say that time really flies at Kawaji-san-chi, a new type of day-care home.

Kawaji-san-chi, which stands on a 370-sq.-meter plot of land once owned by Kenzo Kawaji, was given to the city of Musashino after Kawaji and his wife died. It is the first facility in the “10 million house” project that the city is promoting.

The nearly 40-year-old house in a quiet residential area near JR Mitaka Station comes alive four days a week as five to eight elderly people spend a couple of hours engaged in handicraft activities.

Unlike ordinary day-care centers, those who come to Kawaji-san-chi are elderly people without serious health problems that require professional nurses.

Instead of nurses, two helpers cook for visitors and support their activities every weekday except Wednesday.

“Many people my age tend to stay home doing nothing and feeling lonely, not knowing how to change their lifestyle,” said Teruko Kuwabara, 80, one of the regulars at Kawaji-san-chi. “By talking to people here, it helps to release my stress and solve problems.”

Akiko Katayama, 77, started to attend the facility after realizing that she should change her lifestyle.

“After my husband died, I did not feel like going out for nearly three years. But recently, I began to realize that I should not always stay home alone,” Katayama said.

“Now I enjoy chatting with people here because they are my old friends in the neighborhood,” she said.

The 10 million house project, the first of its kind in Japan, was launched last fall at the suggestion of Musashino Mayor Masatada Tsuchiya.

Under the project, the city provides subsidies of up to 10 million yen annually to nonprofit organizations or volunteer groups approved by the city to run day-care houses like Kawaji-san-chi.

“There are different levels of care that elderly people need. While some people who suffer from serious disabilities require intensive care by nurses, others have no problem carrying on with their daily life, but tend to stay home alone without a social life,” said Tsuchiya.

“Our new project is intended to support the elderly in the latter category.”

Tsuchiya’s promotion of the new facilities comes as the city prepares for the April introduction of the nationwide elderly care insurance system.

The mayor said that many elderly people who don’t suffer from serious health problems currently go to a day-care center to get assistance, but they may not be eligible to receive this support after the new government nursing care insurance system begins.

Because of the strict benefit criteria, experts point out that some may not be able to receive the same level of welfare services they are getting at the moment.

“We’d like to make the new day-care facilities so we can accept elderly people who fail to attain government support,” he said.

The city’s final aim is to set up 30 to 40 day-care houses like Kawaji-san-chi so city residents can reach a day-care house without walking more than a few blocks.

Kawaji-san-chi was opened on Oct. 27 by a local welfare group called Hagi-no-kai, and the city plans to open two more in April and another one in June.

Before opening Kawaji-san-chi, the city spent nearly 14 million yen on renovating the house, installing new tatami mats and floors with a urethane cushion.

Hagi-no-kai received 1.5 million yen from the city as startup costs to manage the house, and it is expected to receive 5 million yen in the current fiscal year, which ends March 31.

“If elderly people can stay healthy and vivacious by coming to our place, it is really good. At the same time, it is also less costly for the city government,” said Kaori Iida, 68, leader of Hagi-no-kai. “Can you imagine if we hire a city government employee for this kind of work? It would easily costs 10 million yen per staffer annually.”

Kawaji-san-chi has been managed very cheaply compared to other welfare facilities, with the two staff members receiving only 500 yen per hour.

But Iida admitted that everyone involved in the 10 million house project — her group, the city government officials and other volunteer groups — is still groping for the best way to carry out the project.

“We run the house at low costs because we cannot take care of people who need professional medical care, but we often receive complaints from other groups asking for more funds,” Iida said.

The low costs at Kawaji-san-chi have set a difficult model for others who wish to follow, she said.

Iida is also looking for ways to attract more elderly men to the house because almost all the current visitors are women.

“We could never have opened the house if we had waited for every issue to be settled. The important thing was to launch the project as early as possible and then work on the details as we went along,” Iida said.