Support system needed to banish 'lonely deaths' from Japan's cities
A number of so-called "lonely deaths" have been discovered across Japan this year, some weeks or even months after the people passed away. In many of these cases, a physically or mentally impaired person has died following the passing of their sole caregiver. Without the means to feed themselves or keep warm, they departed our world unnoticed, and in pitiable conditions.
The realities of Japan's aging society are about to hit the country's urban centers in earnest, and methods for supporting the families of the elderly and the disabled -- two groups vulnerable to social isolation -- must be prepared sooner rather than later.
In one case in Sapporo, a 42-year-old woman and her mentally disabled sister, 40, were found in their apartment about a month after they'd died. The elder sister had apparently passed away from an illness, leaving her sibling to fend for herself. She could not, and is thought to have frozen to death.
In another case at an apartment in Tachikawa, Tokyo, a 4-year-old mentally disabled boy died after his mother, 45, passed away. In the same Tokyo city, the bodies of two women thought to be a mentally disabled mother, 95, and daughter, 63, were found in a public housing unit.
In all these incidents, the bodies were not discovered for one to two months after the people had died. There was a similar incident in Yokohama, where a 77-year-old woman and her mentally impaired son, 44, were found dead.
The first common feature of all these incidents is that they all happened in apartments in urban areas. The second is that they all involve pairs of people, one of whom was an elderly or disabled person being cared for by the other. The third is that none of the households were receiving social services or welfare payments, and fourth, none of the dead had significant social interactions with their neighbors.
There are many households just like these all over Japan's cities. And these days, as much of society goes about its business in relative tranquility, sometimes no one notices when the caregiver in one of these homes falls ill or has a debilitating accident. Then, there is nothing left but to die, shut away in their apartment, their disabled charge following soon after.
Much attention has been paid to the aging of Japan's rural population, but it is the major cities that are now the front line in this trend; the Tokyo area, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Sapporo and so on. City dwellers often have only ephemeral connections to their neighbors, and internal family supports are also weak. The average number of people per household in Tokyo, for example, is 1.99.
There were clues to the lonely deaths mentioned above. Utility bills stopped getting paid and the electricity and gas were shut off, mail started to pile up, and neighborhood council membership fees weren't submitted. In some cases, worried neighbors consulted municipal officials. However, privacy concerns prevented anyone from reaching out to help. Certainly, the municipal governments concerned deserve criticism for their negligence, but every local body needs to take the initiative and work out policies on what to do in similar situations.
Home nursing insurance and social services have slowly improved. Compared to the "pinpoint" support provided by homecare workers and day centers, however, the "blanket" support of group homes for the elderly and disabled remains insufficient in local areas. There are a number of reasons for this, including opposition from local communities, severe anti-disaster and architectural regulations, and tiny budgets holding down staff numbers.
Social services that directly address the needs of people caring for an elderly or disabled family member are also required. Under present conditions, it should surprise no one if we see more lonely deaths like the tragedies uncovered this year.
(Mainichi Japan) March 22, 2012