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Can Tech Sustain a Super-Aged Japan?

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Seniors play with a baloon at the Flos Higashi-kojiya senior care facility in Tokyo. Image by Shiho Fukada. Japan, 2018. 

Getting old is hard. That’s how I feel every time I see my parents lately. My father, 84, a lifelong social dancer, is in good health, but he often feels down about his age and his state of being - increasingly frail and in constant decline. My mother, 79, a passionate hiker, is much stronger physically, but she often laments about what my father can no longer do. “He just sits there all day watching TV.” she sighs. Japan’s average life expectancy was the highest in the world, at 83.7 years (86.8 for women and 80.5 for men) in 2015, according to the WHO.  But what’s the point of living longer if you are not happy? My parents’ grief on aging gives me anxiety about my own future. Is getting old something we all need to feel pessimistic about? How can we maintain our mental and physical health as long as possible? And who will take care of us when we are no longer able?

Japan has the largest percentage of older people in the world, with 27.3% of their citizens 65 years and older. The country also has historic low fertility rate, and it is aging more and faster than just about any other nation on earth. While the current situation in Japan seems extreme, the rest of the world is also aging more quickly than one may think. By 2050, the global population of those aged 65 and older is projected to nearly double to 1.6 billion. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to be more than double from 46 million today to over 98 million by 2060.  The problem is only expected to get worse in the decades to come.

The implications for Japan's healthcare system are profound. According to Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the annual medical costs mushroomed to 41.3 trillion yen (380 billion USD ) in 2016, of which the price for those 75 years and older accounts for 37.2 percent.  Prevention, and thereby keeping seniors away from hospitals, is a key to slow some of the enormous spendings. The government, for example, has taken measures to curb costly and harmful excessive-medications among seniors by drafting a guideline for doctors and pharmacists for the first time late last year. *6

Meanwhile, I find it increasingly harder to motivate my father to stick to a healthy routine. He loathes taking a daily walk, despite his doctors’ suggestions to maintain strength in his legs. “You need to do it if you want to keep dancing!” we encourage him, but it is a challenge to keep him inspired when he doesn’t have a clear goal in the future as an octogenarian. The good news is that there is a new technology that may help him get motivated. But eventually, he will get to a point where he requires care. Due to a shortage of professional care workers in Japan, many seniors are currently cared for at home by another elder family member. If my mother needs to take care of him, it will most likely undermine her health too. The burden of home care has been tearing apart many families and has become a dire social issue in Japan. According to the government estimate, by 2025, Japan will face a shortage of 37,700 care workers. Who should we turn to when home care is hard but finding a professional care worker is even harder? Well, the Japanese have been “building” tireless care workers that can pitch in.

To solve these issues, Japan has looked to technologies from Virtual Reality to robotics. They seem to appeal to some of the very nature of what makes us humans; aspirations, affections, and the desire to be recognized. Looking at how Japan tries these new tools to counter super-aging may show us a way forward in our rapidly aging world.