New Solutions for a Steadily Aging Japan

New Solutions for a Steadily Aging Japan

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Though Japan’s fall into recession in the third quarter is likely to be less severe than expected, stalled economic growth continues to be a problem as it has since the early 1990s. Clearly Abenomics is not working – and one wonders why Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has not considered measures directed squarely at structural reforms to address a profound issue. 

Japan is the oldest country on the planet as measured by the percentage of old to young and will shortly approach having nearly 40 percent of its population over the age of 60. Viewed through the lens of demographics, there should be no mystery why Japan is suffering economic malaise. 

Related: Ebola Is Bumping Alzheimer’s Off Our Radar. It Shouldn’t.

Basic assumptions about economic, political and social life need to change if Japan is to see growth again. Globally, by 2020 there will be more people who are older than those who are younger. Japan’s aging demographics make it unthinkable that it can operate in the 21st century on 20th century models of health care, retirement, education or urban planning. 

The prime minister surely knows this, as he recently attended the G7 Global Dementia Legacy event in Tokyo and committed his country to further dementia research, policy, and caregiving. Alzheimer’s is not only an impending fiscal nightmare for Japan as a result of the near-perfect correlation of old to Alzheimer’s risk, but the disease is also a powerful symbol of how things must change if economic growth is to be recaptured.    

Abe’s keynote at the G7 event contained two points about the Japanese strategy that are of particular interest, echoing in many respects what British Prime Minister David Cameron said last year when he committed his G-7 presidency to the fight against Alzheimer’s: 

One: Create better community-based care
The traditional way of dealing with the old has been to house them in nursing homes or other institutions. This is not only undesirable for a number of reasons, it’s also prohibitively expensive and tugs on economic growth prospects. There is no way to institutionalize care for such a massive segment of the Japanese population. If you multiply that number by three to include family or friend caregivers, you get to an even larger number of the population whose productivity is severely hampered.  

Related: America Follows Japan’s Lead on Aging at Our Peril

No wonder Japan is launching a national plan for combating dementia, which includes a community care system. The longer we can keep seniors with dementia at home, the better. One example of private sector growth into non-medical home-based care is the U.S.-based Home Instead Senior Care organization, which includes care targeted to the needs of Alzheimer’s patients and their families.   

There is also a substantial role for technology in enabling community-based care.  Tools such as “smart medicine cabinets” and remote monitoring are enabling a kind of independence that was once unthinkable.

Two: Expand ‘dementia friends’
Alzheimer’s robs people of independence. Family members often become caregivers, the caregiving becomes a full-time job, and daily tasks once taken for granted such as riding a bus or shopping for groceries become tremendous hurdles to be overcome.

Related: How One Alzheimer’s Family Sealed the Deal 

The British have pioneered a program called Dementia Friends; Canada has followed suit. The program teaches people on the front lines of the dementia battle to treat sufferers with courtesy and respect. Retail clerks and other public-facing employees are trained to spot signs of dementia and how and when to assist. 

Japan has committed to building and implementing such a program – but it must go further and unlock the potential of its Silver Economy, as should other aging countries. Abe must get to the heart of keeping Japanese citizens active, healthy and working past age 60, since it is unsustainable to have upwards of 40 percent of the population receiving benefits and social welfare. Tax incentives to keep people working longer and new approaches to education, urban planning and healthy aging are at the core of economic engagement for an entire society.    

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Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.