Ageing well in Iceland, under pressure Japan

Among the best countries in which to age well are Japan, Iceland, Canada and New Zealand, according to the Global Age Watch Index.*

While they all have ageing populations, they have very different approaches to ensuring the rights of older people, says Karen Buck, the executive director of the Senior Law centre in Philadelphia.

The U.S. lawyer heads the non-profit which provides elder justice for older Americans.

Sarah Clark and Karen Buck

She is researching the best practises of the four countries and had visited Iceland and Japan when we caught up with her at the start of her trip to Wellington.

“For the better part of two months, we’ve been travelling and meeting with advocates and leaders in government and policy and lawyers from all over.”

Her first destination was Reykjavik in Iceland where she met officials who are working on ageing issues, including a senior lawyer.

“She was turning 70 and was one of the first women lawyers in Iceland,” says Ms Buck.

“We explored what were best practises and what we might bring home to the U.S. because we have huge senior poverty in our country and enormous amounts of elder abuse and financial exploitation.”

Office for Seniors director Sarah Clark shows visiting lawyer Karen Buck (right) NZ's Positive Ageing report.

Poor rub shoulders with rich

In Iceland, with its small population, elder abuse is not so common and poverty does not lock you out of care.

“They have lots of great programs set up to avoid elder poverty in terms of their healthcare system, their housing, the caregiving and so I think the poverty issue is, first and foremost, making sure that people can age well,” says Ms Buck.

“I think they’ve done great work in terms of keeping people out of poverty and what I also learned is there’s a real equality in the Icelandic population as you age.

“No matter what your income you can go to the best nursing home or residential program. It’s not based on income – you can’t buy yourself a place.”

The lawyer says the system is egalitarian and the opposite of what happens in the U.S.

“People are ageing on very different incomes as neighbours in various facilities.

“Iceland has 300,000 people so it’s very small but people are close to their elders and, when they need them, they actually do make sure they’re cared for."

Pressures in Japan

Ms Buck says she expected the situation to be similar in Japan but it faces a number of challenges.

There’s an ageing population, people are working long hours and often commuting, and it’s an expensive place to live which all undermine earlier practises of older people being cared for by younger family members.

The older people’s advocate visited an adult guardianship centre in Tokyo.

“We were talking about the stereotyping or feeling that a family always takes care of their elders in Japan and in Asia generally,” says Ms Buck.

“It seems to be a real crisis in their country – the sheer numbers, the economic pressures and all the things that all the people are dealing with in [all those] countries, is really also a problem in Japan.”

The centre was experiencing some ongoing issues.

“The majority of guardians are not family members - they’re third parties or volunteers – they have a whole volunteer guardian program.

“A lot of the issues that you may see there we see back in the States – people not having someone to serve in that role for them, whether they didn’t do their planning document or they’re not working out, or they’re being abused or exploited.

“I think it’s a reflection of [the Japanese] not being able to care for their ageing parents.”

Ms Buck says Japan is “a very expensive place to live”.

The hardest hit is Tokyo where she says “they have skyrocketing ageing numbers, just skyrocketing, so I think it’s really taking over the country”.

The law centre director says guardians in Japan have many responsibilities.

“They look after everything, ie financial health, so they make those decisions. The centre was telling me the stories of financial exploitation, both by family members and by guardians.

“I was shocked to hear that. I cannot believe that happens in Japan because of that whole culture.”

Elder abuse banner - purple

Spotlight on elder abuse

Elder abuse has been in the spotlight in Japan, according to Ms Buck.

“They’re doing a lot of research, analysing the problem and they’re setting up interventions.

“Also they talk about the role of dementia and elder abuse and how you reached those individuals, and how hard it is. [They] are very worried about dementia and those people who are not able to access services.”

The situation is similar to what’s occurring to older Americans.

“In the U.S. right now, we have some numbers on financial exploitation which estimates up to $39 billion a year, and vastly under-reported,” says Ms Buck.

“They think one in 14 cases is reported so the numbers are probably even higher.”

The lawyer says there needs to be much more focus on the issue.

“We have looked into what funding is allocated for research into elder abuse versus funding into family violence generally and it was less than one per cent of all federal funding.

“We’re hoping to change that.”

If you or somebody you know is being abused, contact the Police.

You can also contact Age Concern.

*Global Age Watch Index 2015