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Must Growing Old Mean Growing Lonely? Reflections from Japan

Ogimi older people
Photo by Hector García
Articles
November 5, 2018

“I’ll sing a song for you before you go.” Sumi-san’s voice was clear and strong.

“It’s about turning 100,” my guide explained, translating her words from Japanese. “The lyrics basically say, ‘You’re still just a baby when you’re in your 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. And then when you turn 97, you’re at your peak.’”

Sumi-san would know. Born in 1918, Sumiko Taira is one of the so-called “super-elderly” in Okinawa’s Ōgimi Village, a community famous for its residents’ longevity. Sumi-san and I met in her home on a hot day in July. She had already done her morning exercises and weeded her vegetable garden. Now she was busy folding paper baskets with her nimble hands.

I was visiting Japan to conduct research on social isolation and connectedness. Given that Japan has the highest proportion of older persons in the world, I was especially keen to learn about the lives of Japan’s older persons — how they’re respected and cared for, what opportunities they have to care for themselves and be useful in their communities.

In Ōgimi Village, the picture I saw was inspiring, to say the least, with visible returns on investments in residents’ wellbeing. The area’s beautiful natural environment encourages people to spend plenty of time outdoors. (Part of the village is so biodiverse that it was designated as a natural park.) The unspoiled environment reinforces an emphasis on healthy, all-natural foods, including shequesar — a nutritious local fruit the locals call “green gems.” Community centers called kominkan allocate resources for twice-monthly social activities that are popular among the older population. In fact, as one local official told me, the activities are such a hit that local businesses complain because no one shops on the days they are held.

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