“Let elderly people hurry up and die.” With this comment, Japan’s finance minister Taro Aso expressed his contempt on Monday for almost a quarter of his country’s 128 million population. That’s how many people are over 60 years old in Japan, where the percentage of elderly citizens is predicted to rise to over 40 percent over the next 50 years.
Aso himself is 72 years old, so his remarks may seem surprising. He is also one of Japan’s wealthiest politicians and the scion of a powerful political family. Aso has previously made a number of equally inflammatory remarks about “doddering” retirees who receive welfare, are “tax burdens” and have failed to care for their health.
According to a recent report, 2.14 million Japanese received welfare in October of 2012. In addition, more than 678,000 Japanese households with family members aged 65 or over receive welfare. To provide social services and to support its growing numbers of older citizens, the Japanese government has decided to double its sales tax over the next three years. But it is still planning to reduce welfare expenditures.
Aso’s remarks are certainly abhorrent and ugly. People are living longer thanks to developments in medicine and science. But we absolutely cannot “warehouse” them in nursing homes and other facilities where they can be isolated and, too often, forgotten. This issue was highlighted a few weeks ago when a report about Germany “exporting” its elderly to nursing homes in other countries appeared.
I still remember my late mother-in-law muttering under her breath that the Southern California retirement home some were urging her and my father-in-law to move to was “all very nice” but really simply a place she would “go to just to die.” While she was able to stay in her house in her native New Jersey, she spent her last days in a room in a nursing home without any familiar tokens of her long life nearby.
In direct rebuttal to Aso’s claim that the elderly are a burden to society, there are solutions. We must explore innovative ways to finance services for the elderly. As†Curtis Chang writes in the Stanford Social Innovation Review about the Bay Area†Jewish Family and Children Services (JFCS), which let go of the “typical nonprofit model” of specifically providing services for low-income seniors:
Instead, [the JFCS] aimed to help all seniors, including those with significant financial resources. The financially able group generated JFCSís core financial base, and today, 65 percent of the organizationís revenue comes from earned income. This financial strength allows JFCS to forego aggressive fundraising to cover core operating costs and instead to focus on [raising] funds to subsidize low-income clients.
As most elderly individuals wish to remain in their own homes as long as they can, we need to explore and implement policies that make such possible. As much as 12 percent of residents of nursing homes do not need the costlier round-the-clock care of such facilities but end up there because they cannot, for instance, walk or drive to get food and other essentials.
Programs like Meals On Wheels, which are financed through federal, state and local funds, can help; they can also have the additional benefit of fostering social interactions. Indeed, a study by Brown University researchers has found that “states that spent more than the average to deliver meals showed greater reductions in the proportion of nursing home residents who didnít need to be there.”
In supporting elderly people to stay in their homes, we also need to devote our energies to†preparations for a loved one to die at home and to†planning for end of life care. My grandmother died at 103 in the home she had lived in for more than half a century. She had previously been hospitalized; after insisting that she be brought back home, she died peacefully, surrounded by three generations of her family.
It shouldn’t have to be said. The elderly must have quality care. If we see such support not (as Japan’s Aso apparently does) as a problem but as simply essential, we can focus on creating solutions and ensure that, in their older years, all members of our society are treated with dignity, compassion and respect.
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