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Ageing Japan Wakes Up to Problem of Elder 


By Elaine Lies, Reuters Foundation

Tokyo, Japan

June 04, 2004

Photo by Mike Perkowitz

Multiple bruises darkened the skin of the elderly and bedridden Japanese woman, alarming careworkers. A second visit to her home revealed the culprit: her husband, seen slapping her face. 

Questioned, the man broke down, confessing he was exhausted by the unrelenting burden of caring for his wife. Growing frustration led him to alcohol, then to pinch and hit her. 

Abuse of the elderly is hardly unique to Japan. Yet the first public revelations of its existence over the last year have been especially troubling to a society long so respectful of senior citizens that there is even a national holiday in their honour. 

And despite the fact that Japanese society is rapidly ageing, experts say the government is far too slow to tackle the issue, arguing that firm policy and legal steps are needed now. 

"The government isn't taking the problem of elder abuse seriously enough," said Soji Tanaka, a professor at Tokyo's Nihon University. "They think this is the problem of a minority." 

Contrasting the response to that seen for domestic violence and child abuse, both of which are covered by laws, he added: "There are already more elderly than there are children. If we don't at least have a law, the problem will only get worse." 

Elder abuse, recognised as an issue in the United States and some European countries as early as the 1980s, typically crosses all economic lines and ranges from physical and psychological abuse to neglect and economic abuse, such as appropriating savings and pensions. Japan is no different. 

But it wasn't until April that Japan released its first survey on elder abuse, finding 1,991 cases. 

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," Tanaka said, noting that the survey focused more on the content of abuse, not the actual number of incidents. "It's not as prevalent as child abuse, but I'd say numbers could be as high as 10,000." 

And it can be deadly. The survey found that in 11 percent of cases, the lives of the elderly involved were in danger. 

Although still low compared to the United States, which has roughly twice Japan's population and where an estimated 551,000 cases were noted in a late 1990s incidence report, Tanaka believes abuse is increasing. 

Some, though, say more cases have simply come to light since 2000 because a new law increasing the number of home care workers allowed more people into private homes. 

"Japan is strange about family violence, rather tolerant," said Toshio Tatara, a professor at Shukutoku University near Tokyo. "They make excuses for it." 

This attitude has hampered authorities in tackling child abuse and domestic violence, but is particularly acute in dealing with the elderly, who often cannot leave their homes. 

One unique aspect of elder abuse in Japan is the relatively high number of seniors who live with their grown children, the result of traditions that have long said caring for aged parents is a filial duty, especially for elder sons. 

But given that support services for such caregivers are rudimentary, reflecting a much broader lack of psychological services in general, the result can be lethal. 

It was no surprise to experts that the survey found that 32 percent of abusers were sons and 21 percent their wives -- the ones who often end up doing the most care. 

"Because they're inexperienced, because they're busy and they're tied up with other things as well, they easily tend to get frustrated and resort to violence or inappropriate behaviour," Tatara said. 

In one case, a 78-year-old woman living with her eldest son's family in Gunma, northwest of Tokyo, died after months of neglect during which her bedding was never changed and food was merely left at her bedside. The family said they had thought that keeping her in bed was enough. 

She was taken to hospital but her condition worsened and she died, with the abuse apparently a contributing factor. 

An official at Japan's Health Ministry said it was clear the dearth of services was a problem, adding: "Based on the survey, we'll start looking into what can be adopted as policies." 

But Nihon University's Tanaka said specific steps, including a law to mandate reporting and prosecuting of elder abuse -- similar to those for domestic violence and child abuse -- were needed now. 

A critical limitation is likely to be funding, with social services already pressed to deal with the needs of an ageing population. And since areas with the most elderly often have the fewest resources, elder abuse may well get short shrift. 

"The world is making large strides on this, so the Japanese government should change its way of thought and take the action that's needed," Tanaka said. 

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