The Fate of the Elderly in Japan

With the breaking down of its traditional society, most elderly Japanese people are facing a lonely end to life. One of the social costs needed to build the economic miracle of the 70’s was developing the ‘nuclear family’. A family consisting of two parents and one or two children. Grandparents were an unnecessary expense. Children were kept to a minimum. The nuclear family was promoted as an ideal, but it is proving to be a nightmare.

Most of us in the English speaking world know that Japan’s failure to increase or even replace its population is one of the main reasons for three decades of economic stagnation. What is less well known is the effects of this social engineering on the elderly.

The New York Times has recently published an article by Norimitsu Onishi which considers two elderly Japanese, a man and a woman living in the same apartment complex, who are ending their lives in loneliness. It is not uncommon for an elderly person to pass away in their apartment and not be found until either the stink becomes obvious to people outside or when their automatic bill payments cease.

The article doesn’t mention what happened to the parents of the two elderly people, whether or not they made an effort to comfort them in the time leading up to their deaths. It is often said that the way you treat your parents will be the way your children will treat you, since children are more likely to follow your example than your advice.

The man featured in the story had a son, but he never had anything to do with him. He made no attempt to contact the son before his death. The woman in the story lost her daughter and husband to cancer when the daughter was in her early 30’s. However she had a stepdaughter who exchanges cards with her on birthdays and New Year’s holidays. Otherwise they are not in contact.

One of their biggest concerns seems to be that nobody will pray for them after they die. I find that astonishing for a society which from the outside seems to be one of the most agnostic.

Despite their loneliness, it seems that most elderly Japanese die at home. In English speaking countries we tend to send them to nursing homes. The nursing home is an uncertain fate. We don’t know for sure how our parents will be treated by the staff. I assume that, even with the strongest intention to be kind, staff are driven by KPIs and simple economics to spend the minimum time on each person under their charge. It isn’t unknown for the aged to die of malnutrition in these homes. Bed sores aren’t uncommon.

Most of us wish to live a long and healthy life. One of the Greek philosophers refused to acknowledge that anyone who is still alive can say they had a happy life. The future is never certain.

We need to prepare a better end for ourselves than the one we have developed for our own parents.

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