When a Japanese retiree who had settled in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai died in June, his body lay undiscovered for a week at his home, where he had lived alone.
The man, who was in his 70s, was among a number of Japanese who have chosen to spend their retirement overseas, many of whom never return to Japan. The man had been out of contact with his family for more than 20 years. Finding surviving relatives proved challenging; it took two months before his body could be cremated.
“He was polite and kind,” said a Japanese woman, also in her 70s, who lived next door. “But I had the impression that he didn’t want to socialize with others. I wish I could’ve taken a step further to have a better relationship with him.”
According to the Japanese Consulate General in Chiang Mai, there are about 3,100 Japanese on extended stays in northern Thailand, half of whom are 60 or older. Japanese who have died in the area are on the increase, including 38 who passed away there in 2016. In more than half the cases, no surviving relatives came to the funeral.
Many retirees move to other countries, especially in Southeast Asia, for long overseas stays. But as they stay for years, they naturally succumb to the inevitable as they grow old — sickness, the need for nursing care and, in many cases, the fate of dying alone. And like in Japan, providing necessary care to them has become a pressing issue.
Medical treatment and nursing care can be costly, even in Thailand with its generally low cost of living. With relationships with family back home often strained, there is little hope of support.
One of the reasons for the financial constraint is that retirees tend to move overseas without sufficient planning.
As a result, they are often left to fend for themselves even when they develop dementia, making it difficult, if not impossible, to return to Japan.
The trend of long overseas stays began with the bursting of the bubble economy in the early 1990s, according to Hiroyuki Sato, business division chief at Long Stay Foundation, a Tokyo-based organization that promotes and provides information about extended overseas trips.
Many people who lost their job back then moved overseas until they could start to receive pensions, he said. The Long Stay Foundation accepts consultations from those wishing to sell their homes and leave Japan for good.
“We ask them to consider the risks of having no place to return home to, for example when they are in need of nursing care,” Sato said.
To cater to the growing demand for such long-term residents, Japanese companies are offering nursing care and health care goods and services in Chiang Mai.
Friend Co., an operator of group homes for the elderly in Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture, operates two stores in Chiang Mai to sell or lease canes, chairs, beds and other nursing care goods.
Friend began the business in 2015 after the company’s chairman, Keisuke Yamaguchi, learned there was a large presence of elderly Japanese in Chiang Mai through local volunteer activities he had started earlier.
“We first sought to create an extensive lineup of nursing care goods for home use and set up places of consultations” for Japanese elderly in need of advice, Yamaguchi said.
Friend is now planning to open a welfare facility for Japanese retirees in Chiang Mai later this year. The facility is intended to serve the needs of Japanese with dementia and those who cannot return to Japan for whatever reason, said Kazumi Mochizuki, who is in charge of Friend’s overseas operations.
Green Life Support Co., a Chiang Mai-based visa support company, has tied up with a Japanese IT firm to offer a health care service for Japanese elderly using a smartphone app.
Under the service that began in July, its members send their medical data, such as weight and blood pressure, to Green Life every day and can receive advice if necessary. If users fail to send data for three days in a row, they are contacted by a company official.
The service includes the installation of small motion sensors in clients’ homes, so that if movements aren’t detected after a certain interval, efforts would be made to contact the client.
The service “gives me a sense of safety when I am left alone in Thailand during my husband’s trips to Japan, since I have recently developed bronchitis,” said customer Sayoko Toida, 70.
Tokyo-based Asian Medicare Exchange Foundation Association, meanwhile, has embarked on a project to build a remote medical support system for Japanese living in other parts of Asia.
The project is intended to enable Japanese to directly contact medical institutions in Japan to get health advice, said Akira Mizoo, a doctor who is an executive of the association.
Well aware of the problems rising from the aging residents, Japanese settlers are also creating a network so they can support each other.
A group of long-term Japanese residents in Chiang Mai, whose members are mainly 70 and older, held a meeting in October to discuss the challenges of living abroad. Around 40 people gathered to consider and make preparations for the end of their lives.
The issues include the fact that a legal heir must be notified to authorize cremation, a problem if someone has severed ties with family back home. There is also a widening effort underway to set aside money for funeral expenses beforehand through a mutual-aid society.
In September, the consulate coordinated with long-term residents and locals in Thailand to start making house calls to support elderly Japanese living alone who might require nursing care or other assistance. But funds and personnel are hard to come by since the activities are conducted on a voluntary basis.
“We hope to build a community here where people can live (to the fullest) in the final stages of life,” said Hiroshi Yamagishi, an 80-year-old volunteer worker.
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