posted February 11, 2009

Research to Examine Elderly Care in Japan

 A Hope College professor is hoping that his research into how Japan is caring for its burgeoning elderly population will provide insights as the U.S. copes with the same need as the "baby boomer" generation ages.

Dr. Roger Nemeth of the sociology faculty and a team of five Hope students will be journeying to Japan this summer to survey the directors and volunteers of non-profit organizations that provide in-home care to the elderly as an alternative to nursing-home care.

"The Japanese have hit a financial wall when it comes to caring for the elderly because they simply can't afford to institutionalize everyone with health care needs," said Nemeth, a professor of sociology at Hope, where he has taught since 1983.  "They've had to get pretty creative about how they provide care in the home."

Nemeth noted that Japan's experience can be valuable to the U.S. because in about 10 years the U.S. will be facing the same demographic situation - a dramatic increase in the percentage of elderly citizens needing care of some sort - that Japan is handling now.

"We'd be wise to learn from the Japanese and how they're dealing with this," he said.  "The economic burden of caring for the elderly through assisted living would be overwhelming, so we have to be creative and figure out how to provide for some of these needs."

Nemeth's project has recently received support through the ASIANetwork Freeman Foundation Student-Faculty Fellows Program for Collaborative Research in Asia.  The $40,000 grant will enable him and the students to spend three weeks collecting data and conducting interviews in Japan, primarily in the greater Tokyo-Yokohama metropolitan area.  They will analyze the material during the remainder of the summer and during the 2009-10 school year.

Nemeth noted that Japan has a higher percentage of its population over the age of 65 than any other country in the world, due to high life expectancy and a reduced birth rate.  Further, he said, Japan's post-war "baby boom" group will also soon be reaching ages at which many of them will require increased health care.

Traditionally, Nemeth said, extended families in Japan cared for their elderly relatives, but the society has changed in recent decades.  The low birth rate means that there are fewer children to care for aging parents.  Further, more women are working, which means they aren't able to assume the primary-care role they once held.  And, Japan is more urbanized - one-fourth of the nation's population, Nemeth said, lives in the Tokyo-Yokohama metro area--with the result that many households simply don't have room.

The non-profits, he said, have stepped in to help meet the need by helping the aging population in their homes.  How well it's working is what he and the students are hoping to discover.

"All the questions we're going to be asking are focused on the extent to which this type of in-home care really addresses the health-care issues facing Japan," he said.  "This is exploratory research--we may be surprised by what we find."

Two key considerations, he said, are whether or not the organizations have the capacity to meet the need, and whether or not the model is sustainable based on the volunteer labor required.

According to Nemeth, the U.S. is about a decade away from seeing the same sort of population shift that Japan is experiencing based on the aging of its "baby boomer" population.  Japan's baby boom, he said, peaked in the years immediately after World War II, while the U.S. increase continued to climb into the 1950s.

Nemeth has visited Japan seven times since 1980, including for a semester as the college's exchange professor to Meiji Gakuin University in 2002.  He has led the college's May Term to Japan multiple times, most recently in 2006.

The students who will be accompanying him are all sociology majors who have also studied Japanese.  They are freshman Kari Bechtel of Bellingham, Wash.; junior Amanda Bruff of Flint; senior David Dethmers of Effingham, Ill.; freshman Alexander Krieg of Franklin; and junior Lindsay Ter Haar of Holland.

Established in 1992, ASIA Network is a consortium of liberal arts colleges focused on promoting Asian studies and has 168 institutional members, and the fellowships funded through the Freeman Foundation are designed to encourage undergraduate research in Asia. The Freeman Foundation is a private foundation that was established in 1993 through the bequest of Mansfield Freeman, a co-founder of the international insurance and financial conglomerate American International Group Inc. (AIG), and is dedicated to increasing international understanding between the United States and the nations of East Asia principally through the distribution of grants in education.