Older workers play vital role in Japan's nursing sector from suffering labor shortage

by Megumi Kudo


Older workers are helping address a chronic labor shortage in the nation’s nursing care sector, with many of them caring for clients in their own age group.

Shigeto Hirata, 73, works in the daytime from Monday through Saturday, making home visits to people who need help with eating and going to the toilet.

“You look fine after a good night’s sleep,” Hirata said to a 69-year-old man when he visited his home in Iruma, Saitama Prefecture. The man, suffering from dementia, smiled from his bed, and his daughter, who lives with him, went out to do errands.

Hirata cleaned the man’s hands with a towel, warmed a home-delivered meal and helped him eat it. He then helped the man rinse his mouth, had him take his medicine, jotted down his condition in a notebook, checked his blood pressure and then changed his diaper. The entire process took about an hour.

When Hirata was about to leave, the man, unable to speak clearly, extended a hand to express his gratitude. Hirata smiled and took it.

“I feel close to him because we are in the same generation,” Hirata said. The man could communicate when Hirata began visiting him three years ago and they enjoyed chatting about old movies. “Even now, he happily listens when I talk about the old days,” Hirata said.

Hirata, who used to work as a sales representative for a major food company, likes to meet people. When he retired, an acquaintance recommended he become a care worker. He took the necessary classes and earned a license.

Hirata is now registered with a nursing care service company in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, and takes care of five to six people near his home.

He takes a walk for an hour every morning and evening as nursing care is physically demanding.

“When I do my best (for clients), they always respond,” he said. “I work with a sense of mutuality because I could be a recipient of nursing care services tomorrow.”

The company Hirata now works for has a staff of 85 caregivers who are allowed to choose their own workdays and hours. The staff includes 30 people aged 60 or older and five who are in their 70s. The oldest is 75.

Senior caregivers work for a variety of reasons, such as supplementing their pension or just the desire to help people in need.

Nursing care involves a wide range of work such as cleaning and laundry for clients and escorting them to the hospital and taking them shopping.

Care workers often put in long hours and sometimes several consecutive days, but “we try to keep a balance between their life and work by assigning substitutes when they take days off,” said Mari Yoshida, president of the company Hirata works for.

There were an estimated 1.49 million care workers in fiscal 2012 and 70,000 need to be added every year until fiscal 2025 to meet demand for nursing care services, according to the welfare ministry.

A survey of 18,600 care workers by the Care Work Foundation in fiscal 2012 found that about 3,000 of them engaged in nursing care services at home. Caregivers in their 40s accounted for 28.8 percent of the at-home workers, followed by 27.9 percent for those in their 50s and 15.3 percent for those aged 60 or older.

“Senior workers, along with young people fresh out of school and housewives, are drawing attention as caregivers,” said Kenichiro Fujii, an associate professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University who is well versed in the management of welfare services. “They are effective workers because they are close in age to people they attend to and feel close to them.”