As the graying of the population progresses, Japan will see a rapid increase in the number of elderly people living alone or suffering from senile dementia. In the past, their relatives acted like their guardians. But the spread of nuclear families will make it difficult for relatives such as siblings and children to protect elderly people.

The welfare ministry predicts that the number of senile dementia sufferers who often get lost or who cannot properly do such things as shopping, money management, taking medicine and answering phones will increase from 2.08 million in fiscal 2010 to 3.23 million in fiscal 2025. The number of households consisting of a single elderly member (65 years old or older) is predicted to rise from 4.66 million to 6.73 million in the same period.

According to the Supreme Court, under the current guardian system introduced in April 2004, some 30,000 people applied with family courts for appointment as guardians of aged people in fiscal 2010. Besides relatives, professionals such as lawyers, judicial scriveners and licensed social welfare workers were appointed as guardians.

But given the expected societal changes, it is clear that there will not be enough relatives and legal and other professionals who can serve as guardians of elderly people living alone or suffering from senile dementia. Municipal governments can play a role by giving necessary training to residents in communities so that they can serve as guardians of aged people who need them.

Under the current system, municipal mayors can ask family courts to appoint ordinary nonrelative citizens as guardians if necessary. In 2008, 1,876 such applications were made. The number increased to 3,108 in 2010. In accordance with a June 2011 revision of the welfare for the aged law, the welfare ministry, in cooperation with the Supreme Court and the Justice Ministry, is pushing a project to have nonrelative citizens serve as guardians.

Under the welfare ministry’s fiscal 2011 model project with a ¥100 million budget, 37 municipalities, including Osaka City, are training citizens in legal matters, skills and ethics so that they can serve as guardians. It is hoped that more municipalities will nurture citizen guardians so that elderly people everywhere can live safely. Care must be taken so that guardians’ ethical standards stay high.

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