Japan takes steps to keep elderly from dying alone

Wed Aug 3, 2011 2:27am EDT
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By Yuko Takeo

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - Japan's rapidly aging society, where nearly one in four people is over 65, means that more elderly are living alone every year -- and also, sadly, dying alone, their bodies sometimes undiscovered for days.

But now, local authorities are teaming up with groups such as the post office to check in on senior citizens, increasing their human contact and improving their lives.

Tokyo's Shinagawa ward, where last year at least 25 elderly died alone in their homes, in August began a venture with Japan Post in which postmen check up on people over 65 once a month by handing them seasonal greeting cards.

"We hope to strengthen ties within the community," said Akihiro Hara, a Shinagawa welfare official.

The experimental program calls on postmen to make sure nothing is amiss when they visit the homes of the elderly and to contact a special center at the ward office if something is wrong. That office will in turn contact hospitals and local welfare officials if needed.

Lonely elderly are an increasingly urgent social problem.

Last year, 4.6 million elderly lived alone across Japan, and the number of those who died at home rose 61 percent between 2003 and 2010, from 1,364 to 2,194, according to the Bureau of Social Welfare and Public Health in Tokyo.

A deep-seated Japanese reluctance to interfere in the lives of others, even those living nearby, means that some of these people may go through their days without talking to anybody.   Continued...

<p>An elderly woman prays in Hiyoriyama park in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, April 10, 2011. REUTERS/Toru Hanai</p>