Dark, but that’s the kind of place Japan can be sometimes.
I’m not sure how much of this I feel comfortable saying. After all, it’s not entirely my story to tell. It is my potential future family, but I still feel like I’m on the edges of this, and telling it to others seems like trespassing at times.
But, that’s where we are.
So, some background. My girlfriend’s family lived in a coastal town that was ravaged by the tsunami in March 2011. Her house was destroyed, so they moved to their grandma’s house in the mountainous countryside, where my girlfriend’s mother was from.
Grandma was widowed at that time, so having others in the house was comforting. As someone who loved talking, it was always good to have someone to talk to, even if they didn’t always listen.
Soon after, she developed a lung problem that meant she had to be perpetually connected to an oxygen pump. That made it harder for her to leave the house. And, as is often the case for those who find it difficult to leave the house, she became progressively more frail. While a year ago she could still drag herself outside, she now spends almost the entirety of each day either on the couch or in bed.
As is often the case for those who cannot leave their houses, retired and without work, the days fly by without the obvious ticks to remind someone that any man-made patterns exist. The result: creeping dementia. She’ll forget her age, comment on the same things, ask when her granddaughter is coming to visit multiple times a day, and occasionally misunderstand what’s happening in the moment.
With all that said, she’s surprisingly put-together, which might be from the fact that her friends often come visit and there’s enough activity in the house to keep her sane.
It’s difficult to care for the elderly. It’s hard for those who choose to work in retirement homes. And it’s even harder for those whom the responsibility is thrust upon. With the mother out of a job, tending to the crops at the house, taking care of the grandmother becomes the primary job.
Without the money to send her to a retirement home, the grandmother becomes one of the biggest burdens on this family. And yet, here they are, living in her house. With each blessing, a curse. With each curse, a blessing.
As we drove back from watching Cirque-du-Soliel in Sendai, everyone glad that a cousin could spend the day with the grandmother so that we could all head out, the mother said something that was on everyone’s mind.
“I wish she would just die already.”
I was a little taken aback. I know everyone harbored these feelings, but to speak them was startling.
“We had so many good memories with her. But nothing recently. It’s all bad. I don’t want all these bad feelings to mix with all my good memories. Maybe it’s selfish, but I don’t think there’s anything more good from her continuing to live.”
It was harsh, and maybe she’ll regret those words, but whether or not she meant them, she did at least need to get them off of her chest. She seemed relieved at having spoken those words. Everyone understood. A weight had been lifted.
Everyone cares about the grandmother. But that doesn’t mean they want to be caring for her everyday. Unfortunately, that’s the situation they’ve found themselves in.
Getting Even Older
Taking care of the elderly, especially the loud ones with little mobility, is a problem in any culture. But it’s an even bigger problem in Japan, all thanks to 少子高齢化. Shoushi-kourei-ka. Few children, very old, becoming. In a better translation: A low birthrate coupled with older people getting increasingly older. Fewer children to bear the burden of a society that’s living longer than the social elderly care programs predicted.
Turn on the TV and you’ll see mention of it. But live in Tokyo or Osaka, and it feels somewhat foreign. Like a starving child in Africa might seem to an American, sometimes the problem, though truly damaging, feels like a world away. Then come to the countryside, however, and you can see it for yourself.
I lived in a town where almost half of the population was over the age of 65. Indeed, the cities fare better, where all the young people are going. But the cities are not the only parts of the country. And the combined problems of Shoushika and Koureika make for a country in which the population is decreasing every year, and the elderly are becoming an ever-greater percentage of Japan’s population.
In 2010, the population of Japan was 128 million.
In 2015, it was 127 million.
By all accounts, the population of Japan may never reach more than 128 million. That was its height. Predictions are that Japan will dip under 100 million by 2065.
To think of the burden that people feel in regards to the Japanese elderly now, it’s hard to imagine how the country will be affected in 2065. All we can hope is that the robots will care for them all.
My girlfriend assures me that her grandmother will die soon. That she will be able to leave the house and that her parents will become unburdened. The doctors gave her two years to live two years ago. There isn’t all that long left.
But I’m not so sure. I think there’s more life in her than anyone wants to believe.