What my Japanese grandparents can teach us about our ageing problem

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A lot has changed in the three years since I last visited my parents’ homeland of Japan. Not so much the way things work. Excessive politeness still unsettles me and bullet trains still thunder by, seemingly out of nowhere. But the way my family looks and lives has changed dramatically.

Whenever ageing population crops up as a talking point, mention of Japan is never far off. While Australia’s median age of 38.5 years is only roughly that of Japan’s in the early 1990s, it’s expected to increase by 4.6 years by 2062. The number of Australians aged 65 and older will more than double in that time and those aged 85 and older will more than triple.

Grandma’s (on my mother’s side) love of great food comes from her experiences growing up when food was in short supply during WWII.

With that come plenty of challenges, but also a lot to be hopeful about if we plan ahead and think about how to keep people connected.

My grandpa from my father’s side, at 97, is relatively sprightly for his age, but since becoming a widower last year, his health has dwindled. Three years ago, he’d march ahead of me. Now, he struggles to walk more than a couple of hundred metres in one go, and struggles to hear anything softer than a shout.

He doesn’t say it directly, but I can also surmise he is lonely. “More and more, there are fewer people to talk to,” he tells me, explaining most of his friends have died or disappeared into nursing homes. The English class he used to attend also faded away as most of his classmates dropped off one by one.

Having handed in his car keys a few years ago at the urging of my father and his brother, my grandpa finds getting out of the house difficult. He relies on public transport and doesn’t go far beyond the local supermarket.

My grandpa lives in a less touristy area in southern Japan. During my travels, a taxi driver in Kyoto told me the influx of tourists in some of Japan’s major cities had led to shortages in public transport. “Some grandmas and grandpas who need to visit the hospital can’t get on the buses because they’re full,” he said.

As Australia’s population grows and ages, making sure we get public transport right is a priority, as is ensuring houses and apartments are located near hospitals and supermarkets. Winding back zoning laws which limit density is important not only for housing affordability for younger generations, but also to ensure the elderly have easy access to essential services. And having well-connected, frequent and high-capacity public transport is important to make sure older people – many of whom, at some point, give up driving – can get around and visit family and friends.

Preparing for an ageing population is not just about connecting people to places, but also connecting people, full stop.

When my grandma on my mum’s side had lunch with me and grandpa, she remarked he seemed more lively after spending time with me. “For us older people, interacting with young people gives us energy,” she said. I later found there was research backing that observation. Several studies have shown the cognitive, emotional and physical benefits for older people of spending time with the young, including mitigating depression.

If we can keep people as healthy as possible for as long as possible, that will have economic benefits and personal benefits for the elderly as well as those around them.

It’s not just a one-way street either. As people become older, they generally become less mobile and drop out of the workforce, but they have a lot of wisdom to share. From a business perspective, knowledge transfer between younger and older people can prevent organisational knowledge loss and contribute to business success.

Spending time with my grandparents also taught me about history, my heritage and their lessons for future generations. Grandma and grandpa, both in their 90s, are among the dwindling few for whom World War II remains in living memory. Grandma, who grew up in Tokyo, spoke about evacuating to the countryside as a child, and the burned down city and food shortages she returned to when the war ended. Grandpa recalled the 11-hour workdays and the year he worked 365 days during the reconstruction period.

My grandparents’ perspectives are, of course, just two in the grand scheme of the conflict, but there’s something about being able to hear their first-hand accounts and ask questions which makes everything more profound than reading about it from a textbook.

Seeing my grandparents for the first time in a while made me think about the ageing population problem differently. There are certainly infrastructural and spending challenges we need to get ahead on, but there is also a wealth of knowledge we are probably not tapping as much as we should. Whether it’s more programs facilitating interaction between young people and older generations, businesses stepping up mentoring arrangements or, on an individual level, making more of an effort to visit and talk to our grandparents and older members of our community, there’s great opportunity to improve our connectedness and to learn.

Grandma and grandpa agreed that while things have changed since they were kids, recent conflicts have brought the fragility of peace back into the spotlight. “You’ve grown up in a relatively peaceful period of history,” grandma told me. “But your generation must always oppose war because it has a tremendous cost.”

As we bullet-train towards demographic and geopolitical challenges, connecting across cultures and generations is key to decision-making and progress, as communities and on an individual level. My grandpa might not be around to see the fruits of that, but if his granddaughter is to live as long as he did, we need to get it right.

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