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80-Year Life Expectancy Creates New Concerns for Housing, Care Facilities : Japan Is Coming to Grips With a Fast-Growing Problem--Its Elderly

July 20, 1986|KUMIKO MAKIHARA | Associated Press

ATAMI, Japan — At age 81, Katsunoshin Suzuki finds life lonely and boring in a luxurious retirement home in the breezy seaside resort of Atami, but he considers himself lucky. Finding a comfortable home is an increasing worry among Japan's rapidly growing numbers of elderly.

That is because Japan officially claims the world's longest life expectancy--74 years for men and 80 years for women--and the fastest-growing over-65 population. And the proportion of senior citizens 65 and over in Japan's population is expected to double in the next 30 years.

In June, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone's Cabinet voted to review social and economic "systems and customs" currently geared to a 50-year life expectancy and make changes to suit an average 80-year longevity.

"Faced with an aging society, the most important agenda for national politics is to provide a system that enables people to find their purpose in life with a sense of security," Nakasone said.

10.2% of the Population

The elderly (65 or over) currently represent 10.2% of Japan's 120 million people. That is still below some industrialized nations, such as Sweden's 16.8% and the United States' 11%, but, according to a United Nations study, it will reach 20% in about 30 years.

At the same time, more and more younger couples are choosing to live on their own rather than in the "extended family" that traditionally has been the answer to care for the aged.

Government studies show that the percentage of elderly relatives living with children has dropped from slightly more than 80% in 1960 to about 65% in 1985.

"I've seen it and I know it's too great a burden for children when parents live that long," said Makiko Katagiri, 28, who grew up watching her mother take care of both sets of grandparents.

She said she hopes the government in the future will provide a variety of housing choices for the elderly so she won't have to rely on her children the same way.

In some areas, this already is happening.

The national government is building more than 100 public homes a year in an effort to house about 20,000 elderly people on waiting lists. Still, Japan's 2,700 public housing units accommodate less than 1% of its senior citizens.

The city government in Tanashi City, a suburb of Tokyo, last year built two apartment complexes exclusively for lease to homeless elderly.

"We're a lucky group," said 72-year-old Yoshie Maesato, one of 20 residents of studio apartments in the modest two-story building. "We just spend our time exchanging visits and sipping tea."

In Shimane prefecture in southwestern Japan, officials are planning a complex of 150 apartments designed to accommodate wheelchairs and remote-control devices for the disabled elderly. Among Japan's 47 prefectures and major cities, Shimane has the highest share of senior citizens with 14.9%.

Foreseeing a potentially large market in care for the elderly, the Ministry of Health and Welfare last November began promoting "silver service" in the private sector.

"There has been an attitude that care for the elderly should be provided by public services, and private companies entering the field were seen as exploiting the elderly," Keisuke Tawara, an official, said in an interview. "But now there are people looking for high-quality care. There is a limit to how much public service can offer."

Tawara's branch already has received almost 300 inquiries this year, mostly from large firms interested in building private homes. Other programs under study include health care services, insurance policies for senility and recreational activities geared to the aged.

The Jukeikai corporation invested $44.3 million to transform a tangerine orchard in this year-round resort town southwest of Tokyo into Neo Summit, a sprawling white complex of housing and hospital facilities that opened in May.

"Our motto is service from the bottom of our hearts," said manager Kiyoaki Kasugai, who ran a hotel before coming to Neo Summit. "Our residents are guests."

There are private rooms, a dining room with a varied menu, and a downstairs bar. The staff is dressed in red vests and green slacks or skirts instead of white nursing uniforms.

Soft music and recorded sounds of chirping birds and flowing streams echo in Neo Summit's chandelier-lit lobby. A spiral staircase with an ornate banister leads to an audio room where soft leather chairs face a stereo disc system, an exercise room with solar lighting specially filtered, and a hot spring bath where steaming water flows down a stone wall.

But for all this, the guest must also pay a hefty price. The average cost just to enter the home is $178,500, plus a monthly fee of $665. Only three people have moved in so far, but Kasugai said he has 60 pending applications and expects to fill Neo Summit's 191 rooms by October.

That may make life somewhat more interesting for Suzuki, a widower who became one of Neo Summit's first three applicants because he didn't want to burden his daughters by asking them to help him in daily chores.

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