As the people born during the postwar baby boom have begun entering the later stages of their lives, one out of every four people in Japan is now aged 65 or older.
Working out measures to address the challenges posed by the nation's rapid aging-a situation without parallel in the rest of the world - is an unmistakably urgent matter.
The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry released population estimates as of Oct. 1, 2013, in which people aged 65 and over comprised more than 25 per cent of the population for the first time. Nearly 31.9 million had celebrated their 65th birthday.
Japan's population has contracted for a third straight year, and the working-age population-people aged from 15 to 64-has fallen below 80 million for the first time in 32 years.
The aging of society brings with it ballooning social security costs, including expenditures for medical and nursing care. As a result, the burden of maintaining the social security system has grown even heavier on a working generation that is shrinking in an alarming fashion.
Japan's social security system, as it exists today, is hardly sustainable and threatens to undermine Japan's social and economic vigour. The situation is grave indeed.
In 2025, as the baby-boom generation passes the age of 75, the number of people needing medical and nursing care will undoubtedly rise even higher.
But as the number of older people continues to swell, there are limits to the number of elderly that can be cared for at facilities for the aged and hospitals. Expenditures covered by the nursing care and health insurance systems are likely to increase, leading to a further rise in benefit payments.
The situation calls for arrangements for integrated nursing care and medical services to be provided in the home, allowing the elderly to live at home for as long as reasonably practical. The government must also back construction of new housing to accommodate older people, including those with lower incomes.
Build mutual aid framework
It is important that Japan also define a strategy for addressing the increasing numbers of older people living alone. According to projections by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the number of such elderly people, which stood at 4.98 million in 2010, will rise to 7.62 million in 2035, an increase of about 50 per cent.
Older people who receive no help from family are likely to face great difficulty living on their own if and when they encounter even minor physical or mental issues. Symptoms of dementia and other disorders also tend to be overlooked. Building neighborhood frameworks of mutual support to take the place of absent families is indispensable in coping with this situation.
Many noteworthy programs to keep an eye on elderly residents and provide them with places to interact with other people have been launched by nonprofit organisations and volunteers. We should encourage the further spread of such works.
The role played by local governments is crucial as well. One programme by the government of Minato Ward, Tokyo, makes door-to-door visits to the homes of single elderly residents to offer appropriate administrative services, in an effort to better understand their living conditions. This programme could be a useful model for other local governments.
We hope to see older people who are in good health and spirits take on volunteer and other activities for the benefit of their communities. Such contributions will add meaning to their lives, and at the same time reduce the likelihood that they will need nursing care services, thereby helping rein in social welfare expenditures for the nation as a whole.
There is a close link between the number of older people living alone and the increasing number of unmarried people. Many people within the growing ranks of low-wage nonregular employees are giving up on getting married.
This is why employment patterns are an important part of preventing further growth in the number of older people living alone-working conditions for nonregular workers should be improved and companies must be urged to expedite promotion of such workers to regular-employee status.