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In Japan, retired men find new role as caregivers

How one former Japanese executive built a network of senior volunteers to help their peers.

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Today the network also runs a home for seniors who can't live on their own. It even enlists its members to provide some day care to single parents. But the focus is largely on helping people stay active – and pushing men to take on new roles.

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On a recent morning, decked out in the network's trademark green apron, Seiji Tobe picks up a gentleman in the group's van and gently assists him as he heads into his appointment at the local hospital.

"I think it's good for older people to help the elderly," he says after completing his mission. "My age is closer to those who need help, so I can understand what the person wants."

Mr. Tobe joined the network five years ago to give something back to his former Tokyo Electric customers in the region. "This is something I live for," he says quietly. "But more men should participate because there are things that need to be done by men. Sometimes men's strength helps."

Indeed, needs run the spectrum, from gardening and housecleaning to climbing a ladder to repair a broken fixture. A coordinator manages the requests. Members earn points that in many cases can be exchanged with similar networks in other towns, making it possible for a volunteer to accumulate credits to help a family member far away. On average, members work about four hours per week for about $8 an hour; the member gets $6, the network gets $2.

But for most, it's not about the money. Kazuo Kamiya, who studied elder care after retiring and now trains network volunteers, says he can be a role model. "My students are in their 60s and they know the instructor is 76. So they know there is a future ahead," he says. He also teaches at a vocational college. "We can give young people a very different image," he says enthusiastically. "It contributes to a changing perception of our stage of life."

Yoneyama says the Friendship Network rules are simple: Be punctual, be well dressed, and most of all, don't be nosey.

Much of the focus is simply on having a good time. At the network's drop-in center, an airy spot in a refurbished former city building, several women play the piano and sing as Toshio Egawa sips his green tea. "In Japan, workers don't have local connections," says the former steel company salaryman. "So after retirement, for example, it was my first chance to make friends with women of my own generation. I feel I have found a new world. I just like to drop in and have a chat."

To Yoneyama, it's about embracing the future. Having enough volunteers is a constant worry, and he is trying to ensure that the network establishes a firm business footing that will allow it to sustain itself. That's where former executives can help him.

"I try to transform a company man into a community person," says Yoneyama, who is now pondering shelters for victims of domestic violence. "Get rid of job titles. Get rid of your business cards. Don't long for your old train pass. Let go of the old and become a new person."

Amelia Newcomb reported this story from Tokyo as a fellow of the International Reporting Project.