stimulating profound conversations about living and dying well
The epidemic of seniors dying alone in Japan has become such an issue that there is now a word for it.
Japan has an aging demographic that is more distant from their families than ever before. As a result, more and more elderly people are dying alone. Two particular reasons for this phenomenon reveal insight into a culture in transition.
The most obvious statistical reason for Kodokushi, or "Lonely Death," is that younger Japanese people are having fewer and fewer children, meaning that the aging population is under-serviced in terms of the physical, emotional, and/or psychological care that aging naturally requires. This Business Insider article suggests that there are more people over the age of 65 than ever before in Japan's history, meaning that the workforce is aging out, and there are fewer taxpayers paying into social security programs. Add standardized long work hours to the cultural mix, and we're seeing the return of a tradition called ubasute, or "granny dumping," where elderly people are basically abandoned to social services or simply abandoned to care for themselves.
Another reason for Kodokushi has roots in the 1960s and 70s, when Japan's economy boomed and entire towns were established around infrastructure projects. Many workers moved away from their families in order to support them by working on these projects and, as the economy settled down and the workers aged out, many of them never left, having grown distant from their loved ones. The documentary below explains this is more detail, from the perspective of a "lonely death cleaner."
While Kodokushi and ubasute have specific social and cultural roots in Japan, there is a similar nameless tragedy that has been unfolding in Canada for several generations now. The elderly are often given over to long term care facilities instead of being taken in by their family and given the security, comfort, and familiarity of aging and dying among loved ones. While it may be easy to blame this on a cultural trend, it's worth questioning the source of why that trend continues to be so pervasive. Certainly long work hours, and the lack of flexibility and support from employers, contributes to the choice to give over the care of older family members to facilities. A lack of government-funded childcare resources may likewise contribute to this issue. Perhaps there is fear of losing freedom or having one's lifestyle shift when an elderly person in need of care moves into the family home. And maybe the reticence is due to a lack of familiarity with how caring for a dying person is done,
Cultural and policy shifts are accomplished on both grassroots and administrative levels, and it's very much up to each of us as individuals, families, communities, and policy-influencers to decide how the care of our loved ones should look like, and how we would like our own dying time to be supported.
Persephone Passages and Sacred Embodiment Founder Juniper Quin riffs on birth, death, and everything in between. She lives in North Vancouver, BC in the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations with her husband, father-in-law, and an ever-expanding family of mostly edible houseplants.