Japan's elderly suffer alone so as not to annoy their children

Japan's elderly suffer alone so as not to annoy their children
PHOTO: Reuters

It is not good to depend on one's children - this feeling among the current generation of elderly people is leading to homicides by care providers and other incidents. A typical case was tried in the Yokohama District Court in October last year.

"I have children, too, and I understand not wanting to burden them. But I wish you had had the courage to rely on us."

The eldest daughter of the defendant, Eijiro Koda, 83, addressed this appeal to her father when she appeared as a witness on Oct. 11. In May, Koda killed his wife, Saeko, then 84, who was bedridden and had dementia. He strangled her with a rope and stabbed himself in the abdomen with a knife.

Five years earlier, the couple both entered a nursing care home that charged between ¥300,000 (S$3,800) and ¥400,000 a month for the two of them. Saeko received total nursing care from the institution.

The defendant was formerly a company CEO, and so had an ample pension and financial resources. Nevertheless, he was concerned about his health, and became pessimistic, thinking, "If I die first and my wife lives until 95, there won't be enough money to pay her fees." He planned to kill his wife and himself in their room at the care home.

Generation sacrificing to care

According to the statement made by his eldest daughter, she reassured her father before the incident, saying she and her two siblings "will find the money one way or another." She often visited the care home.

However, her father kept telling her: "You don't have to worry about us. Don't come too often."

According to a 1997 survey by the Cabinet Office, 71 per cent of elderly people chose their children as people they wanted to look after them, followed by 53 per cent choosing their spouse. In 2012, however, the order had reversed to 63 per cent naming their spouse and 56 per cent naming their children. Multiple answers were allowed.

The number of people hoping for financial assistance from their children for nursing care is also falling, from 11.3 per cent in 2008 to 9.7 per cent in 2012.

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"Many members of the generation that is now elderly made a lot of sacrifices to care for their parents before the introduction of the care insurance system. They feel strongly that they do not want to impose the same experience on their children," said Hisaya Nonoyama, a professor emeritus at Konan University who specializes in family sociology.

During the trial at the Yokohama District Court, the defendant's eldest daughter talked about how her father combed Saeko's hair and stitched the edge of her blanket, even while turning down offers of help from his children.

"My father took in my grandmother, and my mother cared for her for a long time. Probably, he wanted to make up for the hardships she endured," the daughter said.

She cried at the end of her statement. "Please forgive my father." Dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief, the defendant bent his head.  

Concerns for kids' own families

There are not a few cases in which one elderly person caring for another has not tried to share their struggles or anxieties with their children, and instead ended up committing a crime. In Kato, Hyogo Prefecture, an 82-year-old husband killed his bedridden wife, then 79, in April by strangling her after he became exhausted from caring for her alone.

The couple's eldest daughter visited them once a week, but at a trial held in October, the husband said, "I didn't want to make my children help with caregiving."

The same was true of a 68-year-old man from Koto Ward, Tokyo, who received a prison term for killing his mother, then 84, who suffered from dementia, in 2011. Although the man had multiple caring responsibilities - he also looked after his wife, who had difficulty walking- he did not think of relying on his son or daughter, who each had families of their own.

When the man was interviewed at a prison in Tochigi Prefecture, he said: "Everyone's trying their hardest, aren't they? In their own lives. You can't bring up this kind of thing [providing care] with them." 

Message at the court

During questioning on Oct. 12, Koda said: "I want to avoid being a nuisance if possible. By all rights, we should both die," admitting that he wished to atone for his crime by dying.

The verdict five days later was severe. Mentioning the eldest daughter's frequent visits to the care home, the judgment stated: "The care environment was a favourable one. The defendant's sentiments of pessimism about the future are understandable, but there were no such impending circumstances," and opted for a three-year prison sentence.

However, after the sentencing, the presiding judge read out the following message, prefacing it by saying that it was "from the lay and professional judges."

"We do not believe that dying in order to atone is the correct way of taking responsibility. Just as Saeko's life was precious, Eijiro's life is also precious.

"Since you have children, we hope you will not to try to cope by yourself, but to live out the rest of your life and hold memorial services for Saeko."

Koda nodded and the court adjourned. His lawyer is appealing, and the court case continues.

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