Thursday 24 December 2015

Caring for elderly takes toll on Japan's workforce

The Straits Times, 23 Dec 2015

TOKYO • When Mr Akihiro Takano resigned from his well-paid job as an events manager at a Tokyo department store at age 45 to take care of his ailing father, he had no idea he was about to slip down the ranks of society until he was penniless and living in a park.

After his father's death, Mr Takano struggled to make ends meet with a series of unsteady jobs while keeping an eye on his frail mother. Nine years later, in 2009, he spent the last of his savings on her funeral, fell behind on rent and was evicted from the apartment that had been the family home for 30 years.

He left with his mother's ashes in an urn and her pet cat.

Now, back on his feet thanks to a chance encounter with a group of volunteers, Mr Takano has paid work as a counsellor for people with low incomes and has become a public face for what the Japanese refer to as "kaigo rishoku", or the growing phenomenon of job loss due to caring for elderly family members.

"My boss told me that once you take off your necktie, it's not easy to put it back on," Mr Takano said in an interview as trains clattered by outside the office of a charity in Saitama, north of Tokyo, where he works sometimes. "I had stepped on a slide with no means of stopping. But I didn't realise it myself - I thought I would manage somehow."

More than 100,000 people a year in Japan leave their jobs to care for sick relatives, according to the government, and most of them remain unemployed.

The tally is set to balloon as the nearly seven million-strong babyboomer generation reaches the age of 75 in the coming decade, potentially dragging their children from the workforce in their prime earning years. That is something Japan can ill afford, as the working-age population shrinks due to the low birth rate and the government's rejection of immigration.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September vowed to stem the flow, which he referred to as an "imminent crisis". In a speech, he set out targets for growing the economy to 600 trillion yen (S$7 trillion) from the current 500 trillion yen, preventing the population from falling below 100 million from the current 127 million, and enabling as many people as possible to work, whatever their family responsibilities.

As a first step, the government last month announced plans to provide an extra 120,000 people with beds in homes for the elderly or other forms of support by the early 2020s, on top of a previously planned increase of 380,000 beds.

Regulations will be eased to make it easier to open nursing homes in major cities, and entitlements to leave and allowances will be revised.

The measures may boost Japan's workforce by a modest 0.2 per cent a year, Capital Economics said in a report this month. Still, some researchers say the government's proposals do not address the complexity of the issue.

"It's not something that can be resolved by just building more nursing homes," said Mr Takanori Fujita, author of Elderly Underclass, a book about the risk of poverty in old age.

"What's needed are more stable jobs with benefits, less overtime work, more childcare places and more support for women in the workplace. Society needs a complete rethink."

Japan has 16.4 million people who are 75 or older. By 2025, the number is projected to swell to 21.8 million.

The country is already saddled with waiting lists for government-subsidised nursing homes - about 260,000 people were being cared for at home while awaiting a bed in a publicly subsidised facility as of March last year.

There is also a shortage of people to look after them, partly because Japan has admitted few care workers from overseas, and the barriers to employing more remain high.

Ms Mie Waki, 44, combined her property development job with caring for her severely depressed mother for years before starting Work and Care Balance Laboratory, a business offering seminars for other carers. She encourages individuals to tell their employers about their needs and to take advantage of the services offered by local municipalities. "There are tools, and you have to learn to use them," she said.

Mr Takano, now 60, dismissed the government's chances of eliminating the "kaigo rishoku" problem.

"They are talking about 'kaigo rishoku', but they don't have the systems in place to tackle it," he said of government policies. "We need to create a society where people can ask for help."


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