For Elderly in Japan, a Very Long Winter

Bunji Shionoya, 93, and his wife, Hatsue, 89, were snowbound for four days.
Bunji Shionoya, 93, and his wife, Hatsue, 89, were snowbound for four days. (By Sachiko Sakamaki -- The Washington Post)
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 19, 2006

MINAMI UONUMA, Japan -- When the harshest winter in two decades heaped five feet of ice and snow onto 71-year-old Takeo Tokozumi's creaky roof last month, the proud rice farmer and his wife weren't about to call anyone for help. After all, Tokozumi said, ever since their only son up and left the family farm 14 years ago, the couple had managed to get by pretty darn well on their own, thank you very much.

So the sinewy Tokozumi stubbornly grabbed a ladder and shovel, and attempted to clear the roof himself.

Bad idea.

Tokozumi slipped and fell 10 feet onto the icy concrete, shattering both his heel bones. His injuries have confined him for the past two months to the local hospital, now brimming with elderly people hit hard by Japan's deadliest winter on record since 1983-84. Over the past 2 1/2 months, the snow and cold weather have been blamed in the deaths of 85 senior citizens across Japan's northwest and the injuries of more than 1,000 -- many of whom were living alone or with elderly spouses.

The mounting toll from this winter, analysts and officials say, has exposed one of Japan's greatest challenges as it struggles to cope with the world's most rapidly aging population. For generations, Japanese families practiced the time-honored tradition of living with and caring for grandparents under one roof. But that tradition has faded. Many Japanese now live in homes with only members of their nuclear family, and the number of single people living alone in cities is also on the rise.

Accordingly, the number of Japanese seniors living alone or with elderly spouses has doubled over the past decade. The situation has presented the nation with a stark question: As the nature of family changes in Japan, how will the Japanese care for the soaring number of seniors being left to live on their own?

The vulnerability of this group is obvious. In this snow-blanketed rural town 140 miles northwest of Tokyo, Shinichi Nakajima, 89 and a recent widower, died after falling into a well while trying to clear piles of snow from his yard. In another, equally horrific incident, Kyoko Hasegawa, an 80-year-old widow living alone on the outskirts of the northern city of Akita, became trapped in snow while attempting to board up her windows and froze to death.

"There was a time in Japan when grandparents always lived with their children's family, and there was always someone young around the house to do the physically difficult chores," said Tokozumi, who is now undergoing rehabilitation after having pins inserted in one of his heels.

"But those days are vanishing," he continued, glancing out a hospital room window at the falling snow. "In my neighborhood, most of the households are now elderly people living without their extended families. And we're all getting older. I don't know what we're going to do."

Coping with aging populations is a major issue for many industrialized nations, including the United States, but the problem is particularly acute in Japan. With the Japanese boasting the world's longest average life span -- at 82.2 years -- the resources needed for elderly care have reached record levels.

Experts say the cost of senior care represents the biggest financial hurdle facing Japan. The overall price tag of government assistance to the elderly hit a record $516 billion in 2003, the most recent year for which statistics are available, a 71 percent jump in 10 years and amounting to 12 percent of Japan's annual gross domestic product. Meanwhile, the Japanese pension system, long among the best-funded and strongest in the world, has fallen into the red since 2003.

Even as the resources needed to support the elderly increase, Japan's overall population is declining. A low birthrate sparked the country's first drop in population of the post-World War II era in 2005 -- two years ahead of government predictions. Last year's net loss of about 19,000 people left Japan with a population of about 127,757,000 -- a record 20 percent were 65 and older. Seniors are expected to account for nearly 29 percent of the population by 2025.

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