Universal Longevity Society and Mutual Support among Generations:Local Communities in Japan

Mutual understanding and support among all generations are considered essential parts of the social environment in advanced countries with universal longevity. In this context, the first international conference of Generations United will be held at Hawaii Convention Center from July 21 to 24, 2015. While Generations United (USA) is the main organizer of the conference, Japan NGO Council on Ageing (JANCA) and other organizations on aging from Europe and Singapore are also co-sponsoring the event. From Japan, Ms. Keiko Higuchi (Co-Chair, JANCA) will give a keynote speech, while about a dozen participants (e.g. Mr. Takeo Ogawa, Ms. Keiko Sugi) will make presentations during the conference.
JANCA started its activities in 1999, the International Year of Older Persons, aiming to “build a society for all ages.” It promotes social participation among older people, with a firm belief that promotion of social participation is the first thing that is needed to promote mutual support among men and women of all ages. JANCA also discusses issues regarding intergenerational activities at its various events. Indeed, many people in Japan think that it is too bad the event is not held in Japan.
As one of various intergenerational activities, Japanese people have been passing the longtime tradition and culture in their community on to the next generation. Older people across the country also teach the younger generations about how to organize local festivals. Recently, a growing number of older people are engaged in childcare support, while more and more children are engaged in support for older people who need assistance.
Furthermore, in some communities in Japan, mutual understanding and support among generations are so natural that people living there take them for granted as part of the normal human society. I would like to introduce one of such communities.
This community (Community A) has about 500,000 people, half of whom live in the central city (the City). For the last 30 years, the proportion of older people has been higher than the national average by 1 point.
About 30 years ago in 1985, the proportion of older people reached 10.3% in Japan, and an increasing number of measures started to be taken for older people. Yet, the central city of Community A (older people accounted for 11.2% then) only had 1 facility, similar to a group home, for older people. The public welfare expenses for older people were extremely low, and the only administrative problem in the City was the increasing medical expenses. The reason behind this was that many residents there preferred not to depend on the public money to take care of older people.
However, around 5 to 6 long-term care facilities were built in the City during the 1990s along with the increasing number of older people living alone. More people wanted to move into these facilities, and the demand for such facilities increased. In this situation, residents started raising money to build an additional long-term care facility for older people. They raised money from young people in the working age, each chipping in at least 10,000 yen. Over 5,000 residents made a contribution in a short time, securing sufficient funds to build a Swedish-style unit-care facility (for about 100 people), a facility for respite care (for 40-50 people) and 2 group homes in the 6,600m2 premise provided by the City. While “gathering places” for older people with hot spring were already available in each district, this new facility complex also has a place for older people to get together, such as a café, a small shop and a lounge, where flea markets and local bazaar are also organized.
What is unique about Community A is that it has the highest proportion of 3-generation households with older people in the country. According to the 1985 census, 3-generation households accounted for about 60% in the central city of Community A. Even in 2010, with the increasing number of nuclear families, over 40% of households with older people included children and grandchildren (excluding households where older people live alone or only with a spouse); in the suburb area, the figure was over 50%.
From 2006 to 2008, Japan Aging Research Center (JARC), in collaboration with municipalities, conducted a study to compare proportions of older people who needed care (including those with dementia), using data regularly collected by municipalities across the country on older people who needed care. Among a number of municipalities, the report showed that the central city of Community A had a lower prevalence of dementia in particular. According to the report, one of the reasons for such a low prevalence of dementia seems to be a higher proportion of older people living with children and grandchildren, having a wide variety of relationships with a society. It seems true that many older people in this Community indeed have no time to become demented because they are too busy taking care of their grandchildren.
JARC also introduced before that in the central city of Community A, (1) parents who lived with older people had more than 2 children on average (in 1985) and (2) many older people participate in and support activities at nurseries and afterschool programs.
Japanese population has been declining after it hit the peak in 2005, and Community A is no exception. This Community started developing a plan to build a society while accommodating to this demographic change. This plan does not dream about the population growth anymore; rather, it aims to build a sustainable and vibrant community while the population ages. In this sense, this Community seems to have a great advantage because it already is a society with “mutual understanding and support among generations,” which advanced aged countries are striving to achieve. Yet, many people in this Community think that they have a high proportion of 3-generation households because the Community is too old-fashioned and children remain dependent. Hence, very few people in the Community are aware of this advantage. This is one of the reasons why I introduced this Community here.

(S. Y.)