For the moment, there are no clear answers about what happened to most of the missing centenarians. Is the country witnessing the results of pension fraud on a large scale, or, as most officials maintain, was most of the problem a result of sloppy record keeping? Or was the whole sordid affair, as the gloomiest commentators here are saying, a reflection of disintegrating family ties, as an indifferent younger generation lets its elders drift away into obscurity?
Some health experts say these cases reflect strains in a society that expects children to care for their parents, instead of placing them in care facilities. They point out that longer life spans mean that children are called upon to take care of their elderly parents at a time when the children are reaching their 70s and are possibly in need of care themselves.
In at least some of the cases, local officials have said, an aged parent disappeared after leaving home under murky circumstances. Experts say that the parents appeared to have suffered from dementia or some other condition that made their care too demanding, and the overburdened family members simply gave up, failing to chase after the elderly people or report their disappearance to the police.Culturally, nursing homes are considered shameful in Japan. When the elderly can no longer care for themselves, they usually move in with their children. Assisted living facilities and senior care are becoming more common, but nursing homes are still rare. I can understand feeling shame in placing a parent in a nursing home, but the shame of allowing an ill parent to wander to either die or be placed in a home by the state must be so much more shameful. Of course, continuing to collect the pension might ease some of the guilt.
In a more typical case,... relatives of a man listed as 103 years old said he had left home 38 years ago and never returned. The man’s son, now 73, told officials that he continued to collect his father’s pension “in case he returned one day.”Japanese officials have their work cut out for them. They need to improve record keeping, and more importantly, they must make sure that their elderly population is receiving the care they need.
“Living until 150 years old is impossible in the natural world,” said Akira Nemoto, director of the elderly services section of the Adachi ward office. “But it is not impossible in the world of Japanese public administration.”