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The life of elderly people in a Japanese community

Posted November. 20, 2018 07:22,   

Updated November. 20, 2018 07:22


I had a chance to look around an apartment complex in Japan, where 44 percent of its population was over 65. The Wakabadai apartment complex was built on a 270,000-square-meter site 40 years ago as a commuter town. The complex of 6,300 households is a 50-minute bus ride from the Yokohama downtown. At its peak, the complex had a population of over 20,000 but the number has gone down to 14,000 now. Most of the households at the complex are couples in their 70s, who moved to the apartment 40 years ago when they were in their early 30s. Three elementary schools and two middle schools the complex once had have been reduced to one each.

The description of the Wakabadai complex may remind you of a typical “old town.” But it is far from it. The old school playground is bustling with the elderly, playing golf from early in the morning. At around 10 a.m., people gather at the shopping arcade, saying hello to each other and making sure they are alright.

“This place is called “the Tibet of Yokohama” by outsiders. It means this is a great place to raise children for young couples and to spend the rest of their lives for the elderly,” said Hiroki Yamagishi, 70, chairman of the Wakabadai Residents’ Association Alliance.

The residents, the local government, and the Kanagawa Prefectural Housing Supply Corporation are making great efforts together to maintain the complex’s reputation. The “Care Prevention System” is the most interesting system the complex has. The system puts emphasis on “preventing” residents from being put in a situation where they cannot live without others’ help. They have many programs for the elderly, helping them to go outside their house and meet people. For example, the Sports & Culture Club ran by one of the councils within the complex has a membership of over 1,700 people, with 60 percent of them being the elderly. About 85,000 people are using the baseball field, school grounds, and the tennis court within the complex annually. Residents hold an annual sports day, a cultural festival, and ground golf competitions, which are being held 17 times annually, helping people to interact with one another. All the programs are being run by the elderly living in the complex.

With the help of the Kanagawa Prefecture's Housing Supply Corporation, amenities for residents were opened in a vacant storefront along the shopping arcade. The restaurant “Haru,” which opened three years ago, provides residents with home-style meals at affordable price. The restaurant is run by some 30 women volunteers living in the complex. Two women in their 70s and 80s, who took the initiative in opening the restaurant, were full of life. Across the street is the Home Care Support Office for the elderly. For a monthly membership fee of 500 yen (5,000 won), residents can receive periodic phone calls and home visits and be helped with shopping or cleaning for 30 minutes. To prevent people from dying alone without being noticed, they group six households into one and have them check on others to see if they were alright. In order to attract young generations, they created a place for parents with children in an empty storefront in the shopping arcade. The elderly sometimes drops by and takes care of the children and have a good time with them.

Because of these efforts, the Wakabadai complex has the least number of beneficiaries of the public long-term care insurance compared to their average age. It means the Wakabadai residents are healthy compared to the elderly in other regions. They are satisfied with their life in the complex, willing to live in the complex for the rest of their lives. That is why the residents are making an effort by themselves to make the complex a better place to live in.

The proportion of the population over 65 in Korea currently stands at 14 percent. The number is expected to surpass 40 percent by 2060. Some elderly in Korea spend seven hours a day in a subway train, having nothing to do all day while others struggle to make ends meet. Most of the elderly in Korea do not have enough savings or pensions. The life of the elderly living in the Wakabadai complex may sound far from the lives the elderly in Korea.

But the Wakabadai model is the one we must realize in the near future. We must start preparing for the future now when we think it is already too late.

Young-A Soh sya@donga.com