A Mother-Daughter Duo’s Innovative Idea Ensures A Life Of Dignity For The Elderly In Japan

Posted: March 2, 2019

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Masue Katayama’s innovation of converting abandoned company dormitories and buildings into old age homes made them affordable at a time when the options were only poor quality public homes or expensive private homes. Her daughter, Seiko Adachi, shares her dream of giving the elderly a life of dignity.

Masue Katayama, born during World War II, was witness to the great loss and devastation in her country, Japan, even as a young girl. Sensitive to the plight of her fellow citizens, she volunteered to work with orphans, against the wishes of her family. She wanted to help others, even at that young age. It was this passion to serve others that led her to ensuring that the elderly in Japan get the best out of life.

In the 1980’s, she noticed that there was a problem in Japanese society that needed urgent attention –there were no good nursing home options for the middle-class Japanese elderly. The available options were either too expensive, or of very bad quality.

In addition, like in India, there was a stigma against placing the elderly in nursing homes. It was perceived as children running away from their responsibilities towards their aged parents. This meant that children often took care of their aging parents, even at the cost of their own career or life path. This was even more of a problem in an aging population where there were more people growing old, than there were babies being born. There were fewer and fewer caretakers.

Masue Katayama realized that it was necessary to give the elderly a fulfilling and comfortable life. It was necessary to make sure that retirement homes lived up to high standards of quality, while keeping the costs low. She understood that to set up completely new facilities would be expensive. So she came up with the idea of renovating abandoned company dormitories and using them as nursing homes. This methodology of converting unused buildings into nursing homes, came to be known as the Shinkou-kai model. This model has since been widely copied.

She founded the Social Welfare Corporation Shinkou Fukushikai, a non-profit organization, which as of 2017, runs 36 retirement communities and 8 child care facilities in Japan, using this model. Its guiding principle, as mentioned on its website, is “to offer many good things to the elderly, to future generations, and to local communities.” 35% of the organization’s revenues come from its clients and the remainder from government subsidies, making it sustainable.

Some of the features that make her nursing homes different from others are:

a) Focus on recreating a comfortable and home-like environment

b) An empathy based approach, rather than a function driven approach

c) Using ISO-9001 standards, to measure and ensure quality control, which until she introduced them, were only used to certify and ensure high standards in manufacturing.

d) Ensuring the caregivers spoke to the residents with respect, instead of in the traditional way which could seem rude or inconsiderate.

e) Encouraging a sense of ownership of their job responsibilities among the caregivers, by implementing a system in which the resident pays the caregiver directly for extra services.

f) Hiring marginalized sections of society (disabled, homeless, Non-Japanese) as caregivers and paying them equally. This helped to overcome a shortage of caregivers.

g) Developing a touch-panel tool that translates reports written in Mandarin, Taiwanese, Korean, Tagalog, and Portuguese. This ensured that non-Japanese caregivers could follow the Japanese law which requires that all written reports be in Japanese. This gives them full qualifications as caregivers under Japanese law.

All these innovations revolutionized the caregiving industry in Japan. Many newer nursing homes now follow Masue’s model, which at one time seemed like an impossible thing to achieve. “Lots of people told me not to do it. They said it couldn’t possibly work. But that actually gave me the strength to do it,” says Masue in this report by DW News.

Her daughter, Seiko Adachi shares her vision, and serves as the current Director of the organization.

Masue Katayama was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012 for creating the Shinkou-Kai model. In 2014, Masue Katayama and Seiko Adachi were among the awardees of the the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year, and Shinko Fukushikai won the Funai Foundation Great Company Award Grand Prize among 5000 other companies. On October 12th, 2018, the Crossheart Ishinazaka facility of Shinko Fukushikai won the “Living of the Year” Grand Prize. “Living of the Year” is an award given by “The Council of Senior Housing Industry Executives” that acknowledges extraordinary efforts of elderly housing facilities.

Japan is currently the “world’s oldest country,” in terms of demographics and will only get older. It is estimated that by 2050, 40% of Japan’s population will be over the age of 65. Life for the elderly can be exceedingly lonely, as this report shows, especially  in a “demographic time bomb” like Japan, where very soon, there will not be enough young people to care for the elderly. In such times, the innovative efforts of Masue Katayama and Seiko Adachi to give them a happy and dignified life, are a beacon of hope.

The theme of International Women’s Day, 2019, which falls on March 8th, is “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. #IWD2019

With women still a minority in science, technology & related innovation, it’s time to shine a spotlight on female innovation champions! Enjoy our Women Innovators Around The World series, where we profile 19 inspiring women innovators, from 19 countries, whose work has a big social impact.

Want to know what other innovations women around the world have pioneered? Read about Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad here.

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Vijayalakshmi Harish is a book blogger and writer. To paraphrase her librarian, she is a

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