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'The Elderly' Need to Be Redefined

The Daily Yomiuri

September 19, 2005

A family of four generations with age 0 to 90s is not uncommon in Japan 

"To pay respect to the aged who have for many years contributed to our society and to celebrate their long life," states the National Holidays Law regarding the reason for Respect for the Aged Day. 

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, about 25,600 centenarians will be around to celebrate Respect for the Aged Day on Monday. In addition, there are more than 1 million citizens aged 90 or older, the ministry says. 

So let us pay our respects once again to those who have more experience in life than us and celebrate their longevity. 

But we need to redefine the term "the aged." The meaning can be expressed in other word such as "old people" or "the elderly." Yet at what age, does one become "aged?" 

In demographic statistics, those aged 65 or older are considered to be in their "old age." While those aged between 15 and 64 are regarded as the "working-age population," those aged 65 or older are reckoned as being a "dependent segment of the population," as are those at the opposite end of the scale--those aged up to 14. 

Doubtlessly there are many people who feel it strange to draw a line at 65 and call those on the right side of the line the dependent segment of the population. 

Life expectancies increasing 

In 1966, when Respect for the Aged Day became a national holiday, the average life span of a Japanese man was 68 while that of a Japanese woman was 73. Today, these figures have increased to 78 and 85, respectively. In the intervening years, the elderly have come to account for nearly 20 percent of the population, compared with about 6 percent in 1966. 

Has the population of "the aged" increased? The statistics say so. Yet the statistical definition does not match the real situation. 

According to a Cabinet Office survey that asked those aged 60 or older "at what age should a person be considered elderly," nearly 80 percent replied "70 or older." 

Shigeaki Hinohara, managing director at St. Luke's International Hospital in Tokyo who is still working at the age of 93, has proposed that the base age for the definition of elderly be raised to 75. 

If elderly is redefined to mean those aged 70 or more, the ratio of the elderly population will drop by about five percentage points from what it is now. 

If the employment system were improved, including raising the mandatory retirement age, and the social security system reformed, the image of an aging society would be quite different from how it is pictured now. 

Baby boomers key factor 

The baby boomers will be a key factor in helping to change the definition of elderly. About 7 million baby boomers--those born between 1947 and 1949--will graduate from their 60s into their 70s in the next 10 years or so. 

Taichi Sakaiya, who called the postwar baby-boomer generation "dankai-no-sedai" in his book, recently wrote a novel in which seven baby boomers--armed with their wealth of accumulated knowledge and experience--rise up to help rejuvenate a local shopping area. 

If baby boomers, who have taken the lead in creating a new lifestyle for postwar generations, continue to be active, the base age of elderly might be raised from the current 65 to 70 or even older. 

Those in their 80s or even 90s should be considered, by no means, "the dependent segment of the population." 

We should create a society, in which those in need of help, irrespective of age, will be provided with it, while those who have the will and the economic power will remain active, no matter how old they are, and continue to support our society.

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