SAPPORO - The first housing facility of its kind specifically geared to providing care for elderly deaf people is being well received, putting into stark relief the shortage of similar options for seniors elsewhere in Japan.
At the residence, which opened in Sapporo in the spring, residents say they relish the “big family” atmosphere in which they can interact with each other and staff, avoiding the communication difficulties they might have at general facilities.
“Every morning I get to see the faces of everyone and greet them. I can live with peace of mind,” said Michiko Hirata, 80, who moved into Hohoemi no Sato (Town of Smiles) with her husband in April.
At around 3 p.m. each day, lights flash in the hallways and common area, informing residents it is afternoon snack time and calling them to gather in the cafeteria, where they chat among themselves in sign language, gesture to answer pop quizzes from staff and drink fruit punch.
Around 20 male and female residents live in the home, some of whom rent single rooms and others in pairs.
According to the house’s director, Ayako Higuchi, 33, the residents are free to go outside or invite their family and friends to their rooms.
Established by the Sapporo Deaf Association, the facility, with its sign language-capable support staff of 11 people, provides a considerable degree of latitude to residents. There is support for people who are unable to sign or write, and notifications are relayed by lights and vibrations, according to its website.
The facility makes staff members available in the daytime for counseling services and ensures the safety of residents, among other services.
According to the association, more generalized facilities for the elderly have to summon sign-language interpreters to communicate with people who are deaf or hard of hearing when they fall ill or require assistance for other reasons.
Many of the residents at the Sapporo home felt isolated at general facilities as they had difficulty joining conversations or recreational activities, said Yuko Shibuya, who heads the Sapporo association.
According to the Japanese Federation of the Deaf, there are 10 facilities nationwide that provide services to accommodate the deaf at designated elderly nursing homes.
As of March 2014, roughly 580 people were admitted to such facilities, while some 140 people were on a waiting list, according to the federation.
“There is a lack of social resources to support deaf and hearing-impaired people,” said a top official for the federation.
As long as they are registered with municipalities and satisfy other criteria, facilities offering accommodations and services for the deaf are entitled to receive subsidies and tax breaks.
According to the Sapporo association, which managed to open its facility through donations and fundraising activities, the financial benefits available were one of the main reasons for establishing the home.
“In a situation where people are still waiting to gain residency (at other facilities), this type of elderly home provider acts as a shortcut,” the federation official said.
According to a survey on “the difficulties of sustaining livelihood” conducted by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, out of the roughly 320,000 people with hearing disabilities or speech impediments in 2011, 250,000 were aged 60 or older.
In another survey conducted by the Japanese Federation of the Deaf in 2014, of 416 residents with hearing problems at facilities, there were 253 elderly who were unable to sign or communicate by writing. Of those, 254 — or nearly 60 percent — had never finished basic compulsory education.
For most residents in their 80s, there were few schools for the deaf when they were children and general schools at the time did not give serious consideration to their educational welfare.
Junko Kosaka, a professor emeritus at Osaka College of Social Health and Welfare who specializes in nursing care and public welfare services, suggested that such offerings must be expanded to assist people with disabilities that might be difficult to immediately recognize.
“There are elderly among them who are unable to sign or can’t even write, and the fear is that they become isolated at facilities that don’t take this into consideration,” Kosaka said.
“Because they have obscure disabilities, people find it hard to recognize the necessity for facilities, and the government’s cooperation is essential,” she said.