Elderly abuse worsening in Japan amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Muneyuki Yasuda talks to care workers and other staffers at Heartful Narita Higashi in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, about preventing abuse.

Abuse of elderly people is an increasingly serious problem, partly due to stress caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to a survey released last month by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, there were 17,281 cases of elderly abuse at people’s homes in fiscal 2020, the highest number since the survey started in fiscal 2006. Cases of abuse by nursing care workers also remained high, necessitating urgent measures to deal with the situation.

Mother with dementia

“I thought about killing my mother, who has dementia, and then myself,” a man in his 50s told a telephone hotline of the Japanese Association of Mental Health Services in Tokyo. The man lives with his mother in Tokyo and has been taking care of her alone, struggling to balance his job and care for his mother since the pandemic worsened.

The Yomiuri Shimbun

“We’ve had calls before from people seeking advice related to their elderly parents,” said Yuki Nishimura, 53. “But as the pandemic has dragged on, there’s been an increase in more serious calls about parents with dementia in fiscal 2020 and 2021.”

According to the ministry survey, there were 25 fatal cases of elderly abuse at people’s homes in fiscal 2020, up by 10 from the previous year. In one instance, a person stabbed to death a parent who could not communicate due to dementia. Another person pinned down the face and other body parts of a parent who had become violent and would not listen, ultimately causing the parent’s death.

“If elderly people who require nursing care don’t use care services, children have to spend more time with their parents, possibly putting more stress on family members,” a ministry official said.

Sharing feelings

“The most dangerous thing is for people to become isolated as they bear alone the hardship of caring for parents amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Morio Suzuki, 69, head of the Kyoto-based public interest corporation Alzheimer’s Association Japan. “If they have no time away from their parents, they can’t preserve their mental health.”

The association promotes exchanges among struggling families online, and provides consultations over the phone.

When the pandemic abated somewhat from last autumn, the association resumed organizing events for families to gather at its local chapters to share their feelings. But the surge of omicron variant cases now has hampered such efforts.

“Abuse at home will become even more serious if day care and other services are suspended, and people refrain from using services at nursing homes,” Suzuki said.

Toyo University Associate Prof. Tatsuaki Takano called for swift support measures.

“Working-age sons are often the perpetrators of elderly abuse at home, as stress builds up in their efforts to manage both a job and parent care,” said Takano, who specializes in nursing care and welfare studies. “Support measures have to be devised quickly, such as active home visits by public health nurses and other professionals.”

Abuse by care workers

There were also 595 cases of elderly abuse by care workers in fiscal 2020. This was 49 less than the previous year, but the welfare ministry views it as still high.

“One factor [behind the lower number] could be that reports and consultations from families declined because of visitation restrictions due to the pandemic,” a ministry official said.

“Let’s draw a line between being friendly and being too frank, as a first step to prevent abuse,” said Muneyuki Yasuda at a training session last month at the Heartful Narita Higashi nursing home in Suginami Ward, Tokyo. Yasuda, who worked in hotels for 40 years, explained about words and actions that could lead to abuse at the session, which was attended by care workers and others.

The organization that runs the nursing home hired Yasuda as a training specialist, dispatching him to its facilities to instruct people in such matters as gentle language.

A care worker was arrested in 2019 on suspicion of assaulting a resident at a nursing home that the Gero Welfare Association manages in Gero, Gifu Prefecture. “The care worker became stressed as he was very busy amid the manpower shortage,” said Toshihiko Kumazaki, the head of the association.

As a preventive measure, the association had supervisors interview staffers once a month, up from once a year, so as not to miss abnormal situations. It is also displaying cards on which staffers praise each other’s work, to encourage employees and help them feel proud in their jobs.

In response to this situation, the welfare ministry made it mandatory from this year for operators of nursing care services to devise measures to prevent abuse, giving them a grace period of three years to do so.

Operators must establish a committee to study preventive measures so that staffers can easily make reports or seek consultations, and set up a system to swiftly report to the municipal government when abuse or suspected case is detected. They must organize a training session at least once a year, and assign a specialist to handle such sessions.

“It’s a step forward to require operators to come up with preventive measures,” said Nihon University Prof. Yuko Yamada, an expert on social welfare. “But there must be a system under which the central and local governments can examine the content of measures.”

“If no effective system is built, the whole thing will just be a castle in the air,” the professor added.