In Japan, retired men find new role as caregivers
How one former Japanese executive built a network of senior volunteers to help their peers.
Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor
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.
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.
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.
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.