09/29/2004, 00.00
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The elderly, from "crown of society" to social problem

by Pino Cazzaniga

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – With the aging of the population as an underlying theme, Japan celebrated 'Respect for the Aged Day' (keiro no hi) on September 20. On this still popular national holiday the Japanese are expected to honour senior citizens in accordance with Confucian precepts that view them as the 'crown of society".

The day gave Japan's major newspaper the opportunity to publish in-depth reports and editorials on the "Golden Age", articles that went beyond simple expressions of gratitude towards seniors but tried to address the serious social challenge that aging represents.

Ideally, people in their golden years in Japan are still seen as the "crown of society". In reality they are a source of problems requiring urgent action. Two of them stand out: seniors' growing numbers and their increasing loneliness.

It is clear that Japan's population is aging quickly. A study by Japan's Interior Ministry indicates that the Japanese aged 65 or older are about 25 million or a fifth of the total population. Another 550,000 joined their ranks since September of last year. Another government study expects senior citizens to pass the 25 per cent mark in the next ten years.

No less worrisome is the fact that they are increasingly lonely. Ironically, no more so than on their day when many families take advantage of the holiday to escape the urban rat race and have little time for grandpa and grandma. With the patriarchal family long gone the duty of honouring the elderly has now fallen on city and borough mayors.

For men retirement is often a confusing time: a time when many feel useless, a time when some –unconsciously, perhaps– search for new meaning in life.

Well-known Catholic Novelist and essayist Shusaku Endo used to say that human existence has three ages: the age of the body (adolescence), the age of the heart (falling in love) and the age of the spirit (old age).

The Bible says that Jesus "appointed twelve [. . .] that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons" (Mk: 3:15). The angst of elderly people is one such demon. It is also a new challenge for the Church whose presence in the country of the rising sun responds also to the existential needs of those who have entered the age of the spirit.

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