A health ministry survey in 2010 uncovered a shocking fact: one-third of caregivers nursing the growing ranks of the infirm elderly are male.
Why is that shocking? Perhaps it wouldn’t be elsewhere, but in Japan the traditional assumption has been that caregiving was a woman’s responsibility. No longer – or not to anywhere near the same degree. Women today have other goals and new freedoms. In 1968, 49.6% of caregivers were daughters-in-law. By 2010, only 16.1% were.
There was a vacuum to be filled, and who else could fill it but men? They’re trying, but not doing too well, reports Shukan Asahi (March 14).
They labor under certain disadvantages. Japanese males over the age of, let’s say, 50, are notorious for their lack of domestic skills. They didn’t need them. As children their mothers looked after them; as adults their wives did. Husband to the office, wife to the kitchen and nursery – that until recently was the generally accepted division of labor.
“There are guys who have never so much as made themselves a cup of coffee,” says Ritsumeikan University professor Masatoshi Tsudome, founder of the support group National Network of Male Caregivers. “They don’t know how to use the appliances.”
There are psychological issues too, Tsudome explains. It is hard for a man to walk into a lingerie store and buy underwear for his wife or mother. It can be hard for him to shop in a supermarket. He’s morbidly aware of being the only man in line at the checkout. He feels all the women looking at him – pitying him, perhaps. His pride rebels. He squirms. He tells himself he’s imagining things. Probably he is. It doesn’t help, somehow.
Shukan Asahi introduces “Mr Kimura,” age 64. Ten years ago, he left his wife at home and moved in with his mother, who was living alone an hour away by train. She wasn’t incapable of looking after herself – yet – but she did seem to be weakening. Her deafness was growing worse, and she couldn’t walk without support. Kimura worried about her – unnecessarily, perhaps, he thinks now. Maybe she could have managed on her own after all, at least as well as she did with him. Anyway, the decision was made and acted upon. On weekends, his wife would join him and help out. His sister too did her part, filling in while Kimura was at work.
An incident sometime afterwards showed Kimura how inadequate a caregiver he was. One day he got a call at work. It was his sister: “Did you know that mother can’t take a bath by herself?” No, he hadn’t known. His mother had always insisted she was fine in the bath. But she wasn’t. Fearing for some reason that something was wrong, the sister one day peeped into the bathroom. The secret was out. The mother’s legs had weakened to the point where she couldn’t get into the tub. She spent her bath time standing outside the tub, pretending to be bathing. Kimura hadn’t known. He would have insisted on helping, and she didn’t want a man bathing her, not even her own son.
There was another problem. His mother’s deafness made it necessary for Kimura to shout at her. A man shouting inevitably sounds angry; a woman, apparently, less so. The mother would burst into tears: “You don’t have to get mad all the time!”
Roughly 1.3 million caregiving men, and 1.6 million caregiving women, work at the same time. About 100,000 men, and 390,000 women, have quit jobs in order to provide care fulltime. The aging society – and no society in the world is aging as sharply as Japan’s – imposes burdens that so far have received little systematic attention.
Tsudome offers a word to the wise: “Don’t go it alone!” Keep in touch, he urges, with neighbors, friends, relatives, anyone who might help when it all becomes too much, as at moments it inevitably will. It’s sound advice, but to follow it requires reversing another seemingly inexorable social development – society’s growing fragmentation. Friendship tends to be casual, relatives drop out of touch, and as for neighbors, they are scarcely in the picture anymore. “Going it alone” is hard, but is there an alternative?