Not so long ago, the norm in Japanese society was for the husband to work and the mother to stay at home to take care of the children. After retirement, should the couple become too old to care for themselves, they would generally move in with their youngest son, whose wife would take on the responsibility of looking after them along with her own children.
These days, though, families are getting smaller, and more mothers are working outside the home. As such, the numbers of both senior centers and daycare providers are on the rise. But rather than keep their two groups of charges separate, some facilities are giving them opportunities to mingle in something called "yoro shisetsu," institutions where the very young and elderly interact and share experiences that let them both see that the beauty of life has neither a minimum age nor an expiration date.
"Yoro shisetsu" literally translates to “facility for children and the elderly.” Recently, Kotoen, a "yoro shisetsu" in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward, was featured on broadcaster TBS’ Asachan morning talk show, highlighting a number of benefits for the children, seniors, and even the facility’s staff of caretakers.
Kotoen didn’t start off as a joint care facility. It used to be just another nursery school, but during a round of renovations, a decision was made to couple its operations with a senior center. The result is scenes like these, filled with multi-generational smiles.
While Kotoen is fully staffed, seniors in its care program can choose to volunteer their time at its nursery school, helping with tasks such as serving meals to the children or changing the diapers of infants. Staff members appreciate the extra sets of hands, and seniors say they feel energized and fulfilled from the increased amount of time they spend among the kids.
Interaction is a two-way street, of course, so it’s not just the seniors who come to visit the children. On other days, the little tykes stop by to spend time with Kotoen’s elderly residents in their half of the building. And while the two groups get together regularly, the institute also plans a number of joint special events, often coinciding with traditional Japanese holidays such as Children’s Day, Tanabata, Setsubun, and the Hinamatsuri Doll Festival. Once a year, everyone even goes off for an overnight summer camp trip to the beach in Chiba together.
Aside from helping the elderly find a sense of purpose in their daily routine, the arrangement also has a positive effect on the children, helping imbue them with a sense of community as well as respect and consideration for the elderly. Especially for children who live far away from their grandparents’ homes, an increasingly common situation as more and more Japanese people leave the country’s rural areas in search of better educational and economic opportunities, Kotoen’s mixing of kids and seniors allows them to learn about, and from, a portion of society they might not otherwise have any direct contact with.
While still not particularly widespread, many have expressed an admiration for the "yoro shisetsu" system. Some say it reminds them of the Hayao Miyazaki 2008 anime film "Ponyo," in which male lead Sosuke is enrolled at a nursery school built directly next door to a care center for seniors, many of whom he has a friendly relationship with. And while Miyazaki himself hasn’t explicitly voiced his opinion on Kotoen’s philosophy of caregiving, it’s likely he’d approve.
Published in 2002, the book "Mushime to Anime" was co-written by Miyazaki and author Yoro Takeshi, with the former also providing illustrations. Early in the book, the Studio Ghibli co-founder talks about what his ideal town would be like, accompanied by a series of sketches. One of them depicts a nursery school with an attached hospice, which Miyazaki later alludes to by saying: “I want to die in a place like this, not with a bunch of tubes stuck into me, staring up at a fluorescent ceiling light.”
While there’s definitely something to be said for Miyazaki’s ideal of dying with dignity, we think we prefer Kotoen’s less somber take on kids and seniors improving each other’s lives. You can’t reach old-age without acquiring a lot of life experience along the way, and if the reward for imparting that to future generations is being surrounded by their smiles during some of their most formative years, that sounds like a good deal for everyone involved, both young and old.
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