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Graying of Japan not all gray skies
Innovative young people finding opportunities and commercializing solutions

January 07, 2014  Taro Arii

 This article first appeared in Japanese on JBpress on December 16. You can read it here.

Reading the news in Japan one is confronted daily with reports on the 'graying of society,' and associated woes as Japan's baby boomers age. While these reports reflect realities, Japan's reporters seem far less eager to write on how Japan's young people are responding to these challenges with creativity, and are creating prospects for export to other aging countries. Journalist Taro Arii speaks with Ryuta Nagata, who heads a project for supporting staff in the elderly care industry, about these new ideas and innovations.

As Japanese society rapidly ages there is an abundance of stories about elderly care in the news here. Most are negative, on topics such as a chronic deficiency of labor and low wages. On the other hand, an increasing number of young people with their original ideas are arising to bring the winds of change to the elderly care industry.

In elderly care, providing assistance with incontinence is an important task. To help with this, a sheet that detects the occurrence of elimination, Lifilm, is being developed. aba is the company developing this product, and it was founded by a college student to commercialize Lifilm.

Using Lifilm helps to provide an understanding of each elderly person's bodily rhythms, which assists in determining the timing for changing diapers and in allowing a caregiver to guide them to the toilet beforehand. Both of these abilities are expected to be very helpful to caregivers.

True face of elderly care largely unknown to the public

By 2030 Japan's baby boomers will be in their 80s and the number of the 'oldest-old' will have doubled. The elderly care industry's role is clearly going to expand, and the number of facilities and caregivers is already growing. However, in the world at large the prevailing view of elderly care remains one of tough physical labor and low wages.

"The impressions suggested by the news and other sources are creating a large gap between the reality of the work and society’s perception of it," says Recruit Company's Ryuta Nagata, head of the HELPMAN! JAPAN project for supporting staff in the elderly care industry.

Recruit Company’s Ryuta Nagata, head of HELPMAN! JAPAN (photo credits: author)

He explains, "In taking a survey of what is required to work in elderly care among people who don't have experience in it, many answered 'fortitude' or 'a strong will.' On the other hand, asking people currently working in the industry yields answers such as, 'planning ability,' 'ability to get things done' and 'challenging oneself.'

Elderly care is actually about analyzing elderly people's life experiences, way of thinking and current actions and providing support that enables them to do what they want to do but can't. It is a creative job that requires a flexible mindset and ideas."

Although elderly care is seen as a job about unsparing toughness, "Many people have come to change their views about elderly care," says Nagata.

New, innovative approaches to elderly care

Actually, in recent years there has been an increase in the number of young people who are bringing new ideas and applying IT to the elderly care workplace. A conspicuous example is the aforementioned development of Lifilm.

Lifilm was developed by Yoshimi Wie, then a student at the Chiba Institute of Technology. While still a student Wie established a project, called aba, for developing equipment and robots to support caregivers. She visited elderly care facilities, and listened to the caregivers to determine their needs.

She then developed a sheet that can detect urine from inside a diaper by the smell alone, and the resulting data could be turned into statistics and used to determine the rhythm of the wearer's bodily functions to optimize when they should be taken to the toilet. This was Lifilm, and it won the grand prize in the October 2011 Student Business Contest in Chiba. Wie took this opportunity to start her company, and is developing equipment and robots in support of elderly care.

Wie isn't the only one involved in creating a new model for elderly care. "There is a steadily increasing number of young people with flexible mindsets entering the elderly care industry," says Nagata.

For instance, some care facilities are developing their business to include community development and formation in step with government initiatives.

Tadasuke Kato, who runs the Otagai-san elderly care program

One of the people Nagata is referring to is Tadasuke Kato, who runs the 'Otagai-san (for each other)' program in Kanagawa Prefecture's Fujisawa City.

Kato quit his job at an elderly care facility at the age of 25 to start his own business, one that provides elderly care by bringing together local residents, from children to adults, in a community setting where the elderly have a role to play. In cooperation with the government he is working to make Otagai-san into a franchise, and is planning to expand it to five other locations in the city.

Also, some are seeking to integrate care for the aged with initiatives in music and art. Yuki Oka, a representative of NPO Ubdobe, is one of these. Using his own experience as a home-visit care giver he plans informational events on medical social security that primarily target young people. By introducing an opportunity for them to learn about medical treatment and social security in a club event setting, he creates a gateway for young people to take an interest.

Nagata says that people like these, who are doing activities beyond what used to be the elderly case industry's image, are continually appearing.

Potential for Japanese elderly care as an export industry

The need for and importance of elderly care is rising with the growing number of the elderly. This issue is by no means unique to Japan. Nagata believes that elderly care in Japan is playing a key role in neighboring countries.

"Although Sweden is often mentioned as a nation with an exemplary welfare system, in the last 20 years Japan has surpassed Sweden to become the nation with the world's highest average age. It is expected that rapidly aging populations will also affect nearby countries such as China and South Korea, which implies that whatever welfare model and equipment Japan develops now will be highly valuable in Asia later on," Nagata explains.

For example, in China in 2010 there were 113.54 million elderly people. This population is expected to grow to 331.31 million by 2050. In addition, South Korea's percentage of elderly aged citizens was 11.1% in 2010, but is expected to reach 34.9% by 2050. It is indisputable that societal aging will affect the whole world sooner or later.

Although extremely aged societies are approaching in China and South Korea, training and human skills that support care giving techniques and hardware such as facilities and equipment are not as readily available there as in Japan. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to imagine that Japan will export its new elderly care systems and technologies to the rest of the world. In fact, some facilities overseas have already begun adopting these Japanese systems.

For instance, Daisuke Yagi from the 'Shinmachi Genki-mura (Shinmachi healthy village)' charity in Gunma Prefecture’s city of Takasaki, has been conducting market research for several years in Taiwan, another place with a rapidly growing elderly population. As a result, he signed a friendship and cooperation agreement with a Taiwanese publicly-owned nursing facility in 2012 and began exporting Japan’s nursing technology.

Isn’t this also an example of a new form of nursing care?

Elderly care industry full of potential

Elderly care has the image of being strenuous, dirty, and low paid. However, Nagata says that, "the elderly care industry is still in its infancy, and there are some companies that have not yet firmly established their operations, staff training or management."

He explains that it is true that employee benefits differ greatly among elderly care institutions. Wages certainly, as well as the management of new hires and the work atmosphere, are becoming polarized.

"Despite this reality, elderly care is a growing industry. Beyond those establishing elderly care as part of urban development, there are also people involved in the aforementioned elderly care-related exports. As we become a mature society that is coming to place a higher value on connections between people than ever before, the elderly care industry is filled with potential for evolution and happiness. By knowing the truth about elderly care, I want people to believe in the future of Japan. And I want more young people to have the opportunity to succeed in this field," concludes Nagata.

Now is the perfect time for the industry to foster a correct understanding of elderly care business by sharing positive information.

The author is a freelance journalist primarily covering topics such as business experiments and issues affecting people in business.

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