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With the rapid aging of Japan’s population, healthy older people are providing indispensable support for the nursing care of their fellow seniors.

Setsuko Kawaguchi, 65, works three to four days a week at the Ikoi no Mori nursing care facility in Tsu, Mie Prefecture. Starting at 6 a.m. and finishing at 9 a.m., her duties involve light work such as attending to residents when they eat, cleaning tables and changing bed linen.

As the facility is understaffed during the morning hours, Kawaguchi is “indispensable,” a staff member said.

Programs to tap spry elderly people as nursing-care assistants and home helpers for people of the same generation are spreading in Japan. The work they offer is seen as helping them stay healthy themselves, and demand for their employment is increasing partly because labor shortages in other business sectors have made it difficult to secure young and middle-aged nursing-care workers.

The association of nursing care services facilities in Mie solicited applications from people aged 60 to 75 as a central government-backed model project. Applicants needed to be willing to work as assistants to care workers, providing services like cleaning rooms and tidying up cafeteria tables. It received an unexpectedly large number of applications from former nurses and nursing-care workers.

Kawaguchi, who used to be a home helper for the aged, decided to apply as she was no longer physically capable of working as a full-time nursing-care staffer.

“I try to help residents live comfortably. I feel happy when I think I am needed,” she said.

“There used to be too many things nursing-care workers had to do in addition to care,” said Kentaro Higashi, a doctor who heads Ikoi no Mori. “But they can now concentrate on their work as professionals” thanks to the presence of assistants assuming duties other than direct care.

Katsuyo Hizawa, 71, has been working as a trainee assistant at a day-care service facility in Higashikurume, Tokyo, since August, accompanying service recipients on shopping trips, preparing meals and collecting vegetables grown on the facility’s land.

Hizawa is paid ¥700 per hour during the training period. “I enjoy talking with them (service recipients) because they are locals and close to me in age,” she said.

When the Daito Municipal Government in Osaka Prefecture solicited applications for workers to assist elderly citizens at the latter’s homes, people older than 60 accounted for 70 percent of applicants. The program allows the aged to request services such as assistance in shopping and cleaning for ¥250 per 30-minute period.

Helpers can either take the fee or save up hours to spend on services that they will receive in the future.

The city office now has more than 240 home helpers under the program. Masako Imanishi, 67, became a helper to “know how care-givers feel as I prepare for the days when I receive care services.”

The program “contributes to the creation of roles and motivation in life for senior citizens,” said a Daito official in charge.

When the nursing-care insurance system started in 2000, care of the aged by elderly people was unimaginable, said Keiko Higuchi, head of the Women’s Association for a Better Aging Society.

“The need for mutual assistance among elderly people will increase because the number of nursing-care workers will decrease as a result of the falling birthrate,” she added.

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