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Japan's elderly cause depression, suicide

Recognising the changing needs of its people, Japan has introduced nursing services for the elderly funded by a levy on the over-40s.

india Updated: Nov 04, 2006 13:19 IST

Exhausted from caring for his ailing wife, a 73-year-old man hanged himself at his home near Tokyo last week in a tragedy that has become almost commonplace in the world's most "elderly" country.

The man's 72-year-old wife, afflicted with Parkinson's disease, was found still alive with a plastic bag over her head.

Japan has the world's highest number of elderly people as a proportion of total population. About 21 percent of its 127 million population is aged over 65.

Recognising the changing needs of its people, Japan has introduced nursing services for the elderly funded by a levy on the over-40s. The measure has won praise.

But experts say the government needs to do more, including assisting families of the elderly overcome the exhaustion, frustration and isolation of caring for their loved ones, which can lead to depression and occasionally murder or suicide.

There are no official figures on the number of these incidents although police records show that 10,894 people over the age of 60 committed suicide last year. The most common reason was believed to be poor health.

A government study published this year found 30 percent of carers over the age of 65 had thought of committing suicide.

Despair can also strike younger people.

A Kyoto courtroom was reduced to tears in April when 54-year-old Yasuharu Katagiri spoke of his deep affection for his 86-year-old mother, whom he admitted strangling with a towel before he attempted suicide.

"If I am born again, I want to be born to the same mother," he told the court on the first day of his trial, where evidence detailed his struggle to earn a living while caring for his wheelchair-bound mother, who suffered from senile dementia.

When he realised he could not pay the next month's rent on his apartment, Katagiri, brought up to hide his problems from others, decided he and his mother had no choice but to die.

He received a suspended jail sentence in July.

CARING FOR THE CARERS

More than 2.7 million Japanese require elderly care services in their homes. That figure is set to rise as the population ages over the next few years because of low birth rates and one of the highest life expectancies in the world.

On average, Japanese women live until the age of 85 and Japanese men live until the age of 78. That's about four to five years more than contemporaries in the United States.

As the population ages, the social problems related to an aging society are expected to grow, including murders and suicides, unless the government steps in to better address the problem, the most pressing of which is depression, experts say.

Voluntary worker Fumiko Makino believes Japan's education and culture are partly to blame for the difficulties faced by the families of the elderly and infirm.