In Ja­pan’s rest homes, staff as gray as the res­i­dents

A ‘su­per-ag­ing’ pop­u­la­tion and a la­bor short­age have the coun­try em­ploy­ing care­givers into their 70s

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ANNA FI­FIELD

yoko­hama, ja­pan — It’s lunch hour at the Cross Heart nurs­ing home, and a 72-year-old, slightly stooped man is spoon­ing soup and fill­ing tea cups.

But Ku­nio Odaira isn’t one of the res­i­dents. He’s one of the staff, part of an in­creas­ingly gray work­force in an in­creas­ingly gray coun­try.

“I en­joy talk­ing to the peo­ple here. It’s fun, but it’s also hard work,” Odaira said dur­ing a break from his care­giv­ing du­ties on a re­cent day.

Ja­pan is con­sid­ered a “su­per­ag­ing” so­ci­ety. More than a quar­ter of the pop­u­la­tion is over 65, a fig­ure set to rise to 40 per­cent by 2050. The av­er­age life ex­pectancy is 85, and that means many Ja­panese re­main rel­a­tively healthy for a good two decades af­ter re­tire­ment age.

At the same time, the birthrate has plum­meted to well be­low the level needed to keep the pop­u­la­tion sta­ble. Now home to 128 mil­lion peo­ple, Ja­pan is ex­pected to num­ber less than 100 mil­lion by 2050, ac­cord­ing to govern­ment pro­jec­tions.

That means au­thor­i­ties need to think about ways to keep se­niors healthy and ac­tive for longer, but also about how to aug­ment the work­force to cope with la­bor short­ages.

En­ter the sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian care­giver.

At Cross Heart, more than half of the 119 care­givers are over 60, and 15 of them are over 70.

“When we ad­ver­tise for peo­ple to work here, we get lots of re­sponses from older peo­ple, not younger peo­ple,” said nurs­ing home di­rec­tor Kaori Yokoo in the lobby where res­i­dents were do­ing leg curls and chest presses on weight machines.

The foun­da­tion that runs this nurs­ing home and oth­ers in Kana­gawa Pre­fec­ture has raised the of­fi­cial re­tire­ment age to 70 but al­lows em­ploy­ees to keep work­ing un­til 80 if they want to and can. Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties around the coun­try are also ac­tively re­cruit­ing peo­ple over 60 to do lighter du­ties at nurs­ing homes.

It’s one way of deal­ing with the prob­lem. Mean­while, re­searchers are work­ing on robots that can lift the el­derly out of beds and wheel-

chairs, and in­ward-look­ing Ja­pan is slowly com­ing around to the idea that it may need to al­low in more for­eign work­ers.

Although older work­ers have con­straints — some can’t do the heav­ier tasks — they also of­fer ad­van­tages over younger work­ers who want time off for their chil­dren, said Yokoo, who is 41.

“Plus, be­cause they’re close in age to the res­i­dents, they can re­late to each other more,” she said. “We younger peo­ple think this must be nice for them. Older staff can un­der­stand things like phys­i­cal pains more be­cause they are liv­ing through the same things.”

Some of the older work­ers here are do­ing it be­cause they need the money. For oth­ers, the money is a nice ben­e­fit, but the main mo­ti­va­tion is the ac­tiv­ity and sense of com­mu­nity.

Kiyoko Tsuboi, a 95-year-old who comes into the rest home dur­ing the day, said she likes hav­ing Odaira around.

“He’s very at­ten­tive to our needs and knows things like how hot we like our tea. My son is not as kind as Odaira-san,” Tsuboi said as Odaira cleared away the lunch dishes. “He’s quite ac­tive de­spite his age, and even though he’s a man, he has an eye for de­tail.”

The dy­namic works well for Odaira, too, who started here 17 years ago af­ter re­tir­ing from his job in the sales de­part­ment of an auto parts maker. He works eight hours a day, four days a week.

His fa­ther died when he was small, his mother when he was 22. “It’s not like I’m re­plac­ing my mother, but I thought I could help some­one else’s par­ents,” he said.

He also does it to stay young, Odaira said with a twin­kle in his eye. “I think it’s good for me phys­i­cally and men­tally, so as long as I can keep work­ing, I will.”

He’s not the old­est worker here, though. That ti­tle is shared by two 78-year-olds, a man who works in the of­fice, and Noriko Fukuju, who helps with pick­ups and drop-offs and does ac­tiv­i­ties with “the old peo­ple.” “It’s fun. I en­joy it,” she said. Hiroko Akiyama, at the Univer­sity of Tokyo’s In­sti­tute of Geron­tol­ogy, said a Ja­panese 65year-old is in much bet­ter phys­i­cal and men­tal shape than a 65year-old a few decades ago. “They are full of en­ergy, and healthy and long-liv­ing,” she said.

Akiyama’s re­search has found that work­ing helps keep se­niors that way. “They op­er­ate on a regular schedule. They wake up, get ready, go to work and talk to peo­ple and stay con­nected,” she said. “We had a de­pressed old woman who changed com­pletely af­ter she started work­ing.”

Still, Ja­pan can’t rely solely on se­niors or, po­ten­tially, robots to staff its nurs­ing homes, where the need will only grow as the pop­u­la­tion ages, an­a­lysts say.

Ja­pan has agree­ments with In­done­sia, Viet­nam and the Philip­pines un­der which applicants who com­plete job train­ing and pass a Ja­panese lan­guage test can work at a Ja­panese nurs­ing home.

But if they want to stay be­yond three years, they must pass a na­tional care­giver’s exam so dif­fi­cult that 40 per­cent of Ja­panese applicants fail. Many Ja­panese also ex­press con­cern about cul­tural dif­fer­ences.

Next year, the Ja­panese govern­ment will loosen the reg­u­la­tions slightly and set up a tech­ni­cal in­tern pro­gram, but there will still be time lim­its and dif­fi­cult tests to pass.

Per­haps 2,000 peo­ple will come to Ja­pan through the in­tern pro­gram, said Ya­suhiro Yuki, an ex­pert on el­derly care at Shuku­toku Univer­sity. “But we hear we will need 300,000 more care­givers in the next 10 years,” he said. “So I still don’t think we will have enough.”

That means ag­ing care­givers will in­creas­ingly be­come the norm.

“I can do this at least for two more years,” said Fukuju, the 78-year-old, be­fore she dashed out the door to re­new her driver’s li­cense.


Ku­nio Odaira, 72, is one of 119 care­givers at the Cross Heart rest home in Yoko­hama, Ja­pan. More than half of the staff are over 60.


Ku­nio Odaira, 72, works four days a week at the Cross Heart rest home in Yoko­hama, Ja­pan. “As long as I can keep work­ing, I will,” he said.

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