How will the US avoid Japan's problem of a generation of isolated elderly that are often not found days, even years after their "lonely deaths" from the post-war breakdown of a close proximity extended family?
Yes, it is a problem. People really shouldn’t be dying like this — brushed under the rug by society, alone and helpless.Why is this happening?In Japan the population continues to decline and life expectancy remains high, resulting in a larger number of elderly people, creating more and more incidences of isolated deaths. The numbers are in the thousands each year.There are a few theories, but it’s likely a combination of several factors —economic, social and psychological.EconomicAfter spending 40 years in the work force, where your job really is your life in Japan, stripping away that workplace identity can be shocking. Especially for unmarried men who were forced into early retirement in the 90’s post-bubble, retirement becomes extremely isolating.Unable to find meaning in their lives and disconnected from their colleagues, no jobs and without partners, many slip away into the abyss.Nursing HomesOne of the reasons for kodokushi stems from a lack of adequate nursing homes and palliative care centers in Japan. According to one study comparing nursing homes amongst 10 countries, the need for elderly care in Japan continues to increase.In countries like Japan and Sweden the parent support ratio will have increased to about 40 by the year 2025. On average, at present about one of every four elders is at least 80 years of age (the oldest old support ratio), apart from in Iceland. In 2025 in Japan, Sweden and Italy one of every three elders will be in this subpopulation.In 2013, for example, 500,000 people were on a 1 year waiting list to get into nursing homes!Fortunately, Prime Minister Abe announced plans to bring this number down to zero by 2020, and his goal of zoning and constructing more nursing homes is well on its way.CommunityCurves, the popular women’s fitness gym, looks very different in Japan. In the U.S. the typical member is a house-wife in their mid 30s or 40s looking to lose a bit of belly fat. In Japan, the gym is filled mostly with senior citizens in their 60s, exercising and enjoying being part of the community.The number of isolated deaths are likely higher in the city but lower in the country sides, where communities tend to be tighter (many of the reports are in tokyo/osaka, but it’s hard to find hard data on this). It’s also not surprising that thousands of retired volunteers have signed up to help out during the Olympics (they account for 70% of tourist volunteers!).Increasing social engagement, providing volunteer opportunities, and developing businesses for the elderly is one of the best solutions to bringing people out of their secluded homes.Without continued reforms, strong communities for the elderly, and an open conversation about death, the problem of kodokushi will continue to take its toll on Japanese lives.What about the US?There isn’t a nursing home shortage in the U.S. There isn’t this culture of gaman where people don’t talk about their issues — people love talking about their problems in the U.S. You even have this concept of ‘retirement communities’ in the US that doesn’t really exist in Japan. I mean, the entire city of Phoenix is pretty much one, big retirement community.While isolated deaths will likely still happen, I don’t see it becoming as prevalent in the U.S.