In Japan, retired men find new role as caregivers
How one former Japanese executive built a network of senior volunteers to help their peers.
When retiree Kohei Yoneyama looked in the mirror about a decade ago, he didn't see a guy ready to spend more time on the golf course.Skip to next paragraph
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A former venture capital executive, he remained eager for a challenge. So the dapper community leader trained his sights on one of Japan's most pressing issues: caring for the burgeoning ranks of elderly.
As more women enter the paid workforce and relatives live farther apart, older Japanese family members often don't have the support and social ties they yearn for. And Mr. Yoneyama is all too aware that many of his fellow retirees have too much time on their hands, leaving them feeling unneeded and their wives feeling frantic.
So Yoneyama and five colleagues created the Nagareyama Friendship Network. Instead of relying on younger generations, their network helps older people help themselves – by enlisting men who are finding that life after the office is short on meaningful activity.
"Care has been considered the field of women," Yoneyama notes, adding that many people expect to be passive recipients of care. But, he argues, "If you take a modern approach, that doesn't mean you just receive the care – you have to participate in it as well."
To Yoneyama, who cuts a natty figure as he races between appointments at the network's office and at city hall, people like himself offer a perfect – and largely untapped – talent pool.
As of March 2008, almost 22 percent of the population was over age 65, a figure that is expected to double by 2050. The world's oldest man lives in Japan and just celebrated his 113th birthday. More than 36,000 Japanese were born a century ago, and 13 million are over 75. Meanwhile, a plunging birthrate is eating away at traditional labor ranks.
The government has taken some action. Passage of a 1998 law to support nonprofit activities prompted a small flurry of organizations like the Nagareyama Friendship Network, which had opened its doors three years earlier. The creation in 2000 of elderly care insurance also helped, as service groups could get reimbursed for certain programs.
"There are not enough human resources to care for an increasing number of elderly in Japan, so more community groups are being set up to engage elderly people themselves," says Mariko Hattori, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. "The government encourages this."
Officials have taken other measures: This year, for example, Japan opened its doors to 200 Indonesian nurses and caregivers to start to ease a care shortage in health facilities. More foreign nurses are likely to be admitted over the next two years.
The Friendship Network, which got off the ground with guidance from Tsutomu Hotta, a former prosecutor who had started his own aging-related nonprofit, has seen its initial ranks of 155 members swell to 2,000 – 1,200 who help others, and 800 more who participate in the organization's other activities. About 30 percent of members are men.