By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 22 February 2018
Yesterday I met a woman who told me about her grandmother who lived until the age of 99 years and 11 months. She told me how she lived alone in the countryside yet was busy every day up until the end of her life. In her later years she took it upon herself to care for the mountain behind her house, focusing especially on ridding it of weeds. Her granddaughter claimed this daily (and apparently endless) work was one of the main reasons why she maintained her health up until the end. Such stories have been told repeatedly to me in the three weeks since arriving in Japan. Stories of elderly people maintaining their health by cultivating vegetables, teaching traditional arts, or indeed weeding mountains, abound.
From the conversations I have had, there appears to be a social expectation for an individual to maintain an active life for as long as possible and to continue to contribute to society in old age. This can also involve minimising the appearance of frailty and dependence. Another woman told me of how her grandmother, who also lives alone, makes use of a local health facility which picks her up in a minibus twice a week. However, she does not let the minibus collect her from outside her house, preferring to walk around the block so that her dependence on institutional support will not be visible to the neighbours. For this elderly woman, the fact that she lives alone and not with her family gives rise to sense of shame. She continually puts pressure on her children and grandchildren, asking when they will move closer to take care of her.
What is fascinating to me is the tension between an individual’s responsibility for self-care and the social motivations for maintaining one’s health. As Japan undergoes a shift towards a more individualised society (Allison, 2013), consequences such as loneliness and isolation are felt particularly by the elderly, especially if they are used to living in traditional multigenerational households (known as ie). However, my project focuses on the middle-aged who are caught in the middle of these tensions. They both desire the privacy and independence of living apart from parents, while wanting to fulfil their sense of filial piety. The couple with whom I am staying are both in their 60s and close to retirement. Their house is attached to that of the husband’s parents who are in their 90s and mostly independent. The elderly parents shop and cook for themselves and I have witnessed only rare interaction between the two households. The main mode of communication is an interphone system which buzzes sometimes in the evening, for example when the grandmother wants to share gifts of food she has received from the temple, or simply to let her son know that she is going to bed. While the elderly parents do not own a telephone, the interphone allows them to maintain a separation while facilitating daily communication. As monitoring and smart home technology becomes more commonplace, it will be interesting to see if this technology accelerates the trend towards an individualised society by facilitating care at a distance.
Allison, A. (2013) Precarious Japan. Duke University Press