5 Things We Can Learn About Aging Well From Japan

Elderly people use pairs of wooden dumbbells exercise during a health promotion event at a Tokyo temple on Respect the Aged D
Elderly people use pairs of wooden dumbbells exercise during a health promotion event at a Tokyo temple on Respect the Aged Day, Monday, Sept. 17, 2007. Nearly 22 percent of Japan's population is aged 65 or older, a new high in one of the world's most rapidly aging societies, according to a government data. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

Japan is winning the gray race. Today, one in five people in Japan is 65 or older and by 2035 that number is expected to reach one in three. By comparison, in the U.S., our senior population won't reach 20 percent until 2050. Still, the aging of America is coming and as Senior Planet recently noted, the Japanese have come up with a few innovations worth keeping an eye on.

1) Community time-banking.
As adult children both here and in Japan move away from their parents and home cities, the problem of who will care of aging relatives takes on greater urgency. The Fureai Kippu or "Ticket for a Caring Relationship" system provides care for older people through the exchange of time credits. People donate their time by helping a senior and are issued tickets as payment which can then be used by a senior to "buy" services. Anyone can earn these tickets -- seniors helping another senior, someone younger helping any older person in the community -- and the tickets are used to pay for things like a ride to a medical appointment or a trip to the grocery store.

Adult children who have moved away can earn tickets by helping seniors who live near them and then send the tickets they earned to their own parents. The program of complementary community currency was initiated in 1995 in Japan through the Sawayaka Welfare Foundation. It's been widely embraced in China, which now has the largest program.

While certainly people could pay someone to drive Mom or Dad to the doctor, we like the Fureai Kippu method for a number of reasons: It is community-based and feels more personal. It also allows adult children to fulfill their own traditional and emotional need to care for aging relatives by caring for someone else's parents and earning tickets that they can send to their own family members. It just keeps it closer to the heart.

2) A senior smartphone.
Adapting technology for easier use by seniors is a no-brainer for any company hoping to compete in the aging market.
The Japanese manufacturer Fujitsu's Raku Raku Android smartphone was designed with older people in mind. The touchscreen features larger icons and text size, and there are fewer apps on the home screen to lessen any confusion. It has basic apps such as the phone dialer, phone book, email and weather forecast. It was introduced in France and the U.S. market may be next.

An observation: Simple terminology changes would make some technology more easily accessible. Seniors identify with words like "phone book," instead of "contacts." "GPS" may be meaningless while "map" is more readily understood. Why add to the problem?

3) Smart canes.
Well, why not? Fujitsu also has a walking stick prototype that comes with a built-in navigation system that not only provides the user with arrows to point them in the right direction to their destination, but allows others to track the walker's movements. “The Next Generation” cane monitors heart rate and temperature and if necessary, can call for assistance.

Closer to home, the Isowalk smart walking stick aims to build a better mousetrap. It's more cane than walking stick, but it avoids concentrated weight loads on the user's wrist by adapting itself to the walker’s weight, wrist pressure, and gait.

4) Senior-friendly shopping center.
The first senior-friendly shopping center opened last year in Funabashi, Japan. Under the same roof, seniors can find same-day service for bifocals and buy groceries that are housed on shelves with large-type price tags while they wait for their glasses to be ready. Even the escalators move at a little slower speed. About 5,000 people were lined up to get in on opening day, reported the Japan Daily Press.

5) Robots.
Robots that vacuum may seem so 15 minutes ago, but robots that help improve the lives of the elderly and disabled are on every research and development company's short list. Senior Planet looked at an autopilot wheelchair with a laser sensor and a camera to keep it from crashing into obstacles and other people. The wheelchair can move through congested areas with ease, something that will matter to seniors living in urban areas like New York.



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