The Elderly Matter Too: Lessons from Japan

TW: Mental illness; depression

A quick google search of ‘young adults and covid’ or ‘what do young people think about covid’ produces a litany of articles detailing the psychological damage the pandemic has had on young people, and how outraged we are at being labelled ‘selfish’ or ‘uncaring’ about Covid. Last year, The Guardian went as far as to call adolescents and young adults a “lost generation” for how we’ve been impacted by the pandemic. And by and large, there has been mass sympathy for young people, who are supposedly the ‘biggest losers’ from lockdown restrictions.

Of course, the damaging psychological effects of lockdowns on young people were enormous. There is no denying that. But we seem to have either forgotten or ignored the fact that young people are not the only generation to suffer. For example, a University of London study found that the number of older adults with symptoms of depression more than doubled following the first lockdown. The elderly are increasingly vulnerable to mental illness, yet this is not discussed at the rate of youth mental health. 

This is symptomatic of an alarming trend of apathy about the health and wellbeing of the elderly population. Sometimes, it feels as though you cannot move through a group of young adults without someone saying restrictions are pointless, and that the elderly and vulnerable should simply stay home rather than force everyone else to wear a mask. As if simply by being younger, we are more entitled to enjoy life than those who are old. 

Sentiments like this are key signs of ageism, prejudice against people based on their age. Ageism is often laughed at, seen only as the older generation taking offence to being called ‘boomer’. But ageism is in fact entrenched in the care system of the UK. And this becomes most obvious when we compare how differently the elderly are viewed and treated in the UK and Japan. 

In Japan, being old does not mean you are decrepit.

Japan has the oldest population in the world. By 2036, it is expected that people aged over 65 will make up 1/3 of the population. But this is not indicative of a reduced workforce or increased care burdens on families, as is so often feared when ageing populations are mentioned. 70% of 60-69-year-olds and 50% of those over 70 are still working in Japan. This is a stark contrast to the UK, where such workers are often seen as costly, and where 44% of over-50s report experiencing age-based discrimination in the workplace, such as being refused a promotion. This is not the case in Japan, where such workers are respected and encouraged to remain in work for as long as they are able. Similarly, many of the older generations remain active until they die, like Hidekichi Miyazaki who at the age of 105, set a world record for the 100m sprint. In Japan, being old does not mean you are decrepit.

This attitude, that to be old does not mean you are a burden, is reflected in the care system in place in Japan. The onus for care of the elderly is placed on the local community rather than on families, and provisions for their health is funded by a mixture of sources, including the government and public services. Elderly healthcare is considered as important as healthcare for the young. Older people are not shoved into care homes or the spare bedroom, but are encouraged to keep their own homes, spend time with peers, and rely on each other for support and care.

Perhaps more importantly, care for the elderly is taken very seriously in Japan. When you become eligible for the services provided to older people, a set of comprehensive health checks are done to ascertain precisely what you need, and to ensure you get it from trained professionals and compassionate peers. Meanwhile, in the UK, care workers have been described as undertrained, underequipped, and lacking the humanity needed to deal with vulnerable people. Furthermore, a disconnect of the care sector from the NHS and Covid policy, a move that feels like the government admitting they value older lives less than others, means that neglect in care homes was often as at fault for the higher elderly mortality during the pandemic as the actual virus was. 

Older adults in Japan are often happy, healthy and independent. This is no small part because ageing isn’t stigmatised in Japan the way it is in the UK. There’s no shame in getting older. The UK has a lot to learn from Japan on this front, the most important lesson being that youth does not have a monopoly on the enjoyment of life. No matter how old you are, your life matters.

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