Japanese Aging in America
John de Boer (Research Associate, GLOCOM; Japan Fellow, Stanford University)
According to the October 20th edition of The New York Times, the phenomenon of an aging Japanese society is having an impact in the United States as well. First and second generation Japanese immigrants to the U.S., commonly referred to as the Nikkei community, is the fastest aging immigrant population in the United States. Population statistics tabulated by Susan Weber-Stoger of Queens College indicates that twenty percent of the Nikkei population in the United States is sixty-five years or older. This compares to ten percent for the Chinese, nine percent for the Filipino, four percent for the Indian, six percent for the Korean, five percent for the Vietnamese and approximately five percent for the Hispanic communities.
One of the outcomes of this increasingly graying Nikkei populace is the opening of "assisted-living facilities" (group homes) that cater to the Nikkei society. This new service is gaining considerable media attention as of late with the New York Times featuring it in a front-page article entitled, "Immigrants Now Embrace Homes for Elderly" (Sarah Kershaw, 20 October).
In her piece, Kershaw highlights the Nikkei Manor, an assisted living home for the Japanese-American community, located in Seattle where forty-six Japanese-Americans are living out their life. She sees the emergence of such a service as driven by several factors: "career families that have little time to care for their parents, increasing wealth for some immigrant populations and gradual acceptance of a lifestyle that was unheard of a generation ago." Another reality, is the fact that this relatively small yet concentrated and wealthy immigrant community of 800,000 Japanese-Americans is faced to deal with an over sixty-five grouping of approximately 160,000 people. The pure demographics of this phenomenon make places such as the Nikkei Manor economically viable. After all, we must recognize that the aging society has created a whole new market. In Japan, few sectors are growing faster than that which treats elderly healthcare. It is only natural that similar developments take place in societies with aging populations in the United States.
What intrigues Kershaw, however, is the fact that this trend reflects a change in the social norms of a Japanese community that traditionally cared for the elderly in the home. According to Dr. Namkee G. Choi, a gerontologist and professor of social work at the University of Texas, whom Kershaw interviewed, the Nikkei people are the most likely among immigrant groups to accept living in nursing homes. His research indicates that it is not just the younger generation that is shedding its responsibility of having to care for the aging, but also the elderly community that is feeling liberated with their newfound independence. Whether this has relieved children of the guilt complex they may be suffering from abandoning their time-honored duty is another question.
On the whole, the article paints the picture of a tightly knit Japanese society living in Seattle based apartment complexes relatively happily as they are surrounded by friends, treated by professional care-takers and supported by their families. Obviously the story is not so rosy for everyone. These homes are by no means inexpensive. The Nikkei Manor is considered to be relatively cheap and costs $2,700 a month; others can run up to $10,000 per month. The Nikkei community is fortunate to have the strong financial base that allows it to afford this kind of specialized care, most newer immigrant communities and others that have been historically discriminated against, such as the Hispanics, don't have that freedom. Many Hispanics are among the working poor and have no choice but to care for their elderly the best they can. Many also count among the 43 million uninsured Americans, for whom aging means nothing more than dependence and poverty. Which leads us to conclude that the mobility of social norms may have something to do with social hierarchy as well. That an aging Japanese community in the United States is now discovering a new type of independence is a tribute to their long and hard working life. Some of those living in the Nikkei Manor no doubt remember the days of their internment during World War II. They deserve all the freedom they can get. I only hope that less privileged communities will be able to attain the same.