The death of 10 people in a March 19 fire at a nursing home for the elderly in Shibukawa, Gunma Prefecture, has brought to light the harsh conditions in which low-income elderly people must live. When the fire started, 16 elderly people and one staffer were at the home. It came to light that 13 of the 16 had been referred to the facility by Tokyo’s Sumida Ward; six of the 13, all on welfare, became fire victims. Two more elderly welfare recipients referred by the ward happened to be in the hospital.

The nursing home was not registered with the prefectural government. The layout of its buildings was complicated due to repeated add-ons and reconstruction. No sprinklers or alarms were installed; because of the small size of the home, they were not required by law. Emergency intercoms were either broken or not installed in the rooms.

Tokyo cannot afford to maintain enough homes for the elderly due to high land prices and the wage levels of staffers. A Sumida Ward official said that as an increasing number of elderly people become poverty-stricken due to the economic downturn and the worsening employment situation, the ward has no choice but to rely on unregistered facilities. The ward had referred an additional 76 elderly people, mostly living alone on welfare, to unregistered facilities.

A welfare ministry survey shows there were 377 unregistered homes for the elderly in 31 prefectures as of February 2007. A Kyodo News Service has found that 1,547 elderly people receiving welfare from Tokyo ward governments are living at homes for the elderly outside Tokyo. At least 89 of them are in unregistered facilities or those “suspected as unregistered.”

It is impossible to stop relying on unregistered homes for the elderly. But elderly people at such homes may not be receiving proper care. Sumida Ward, for example, failed to notice a 2006 e-mail from a local resident that pointed out problems at the Shibukawa home. At the very least, the central and local governments should inspect these facilities frequently to ensure that they are safe and providing proper care. As the population rapidly grays, governments need to review and improve their overall welfare policy for the elderly.

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