As the United States grapples with the realities of its large and aging Baby Boom generation, other countries are experiencing similar demographic trends. China, for instance, will have an over-65 population of roughly 500 million people by 2050.
The worldwide preponderance of seniors is causing many countries to reassess how they pay for care, manage the needs of those afflicted with dementia, prevent isolation and otherwise show compassion to those who have worked hard throughout their lives and now need support.
While the U.S. is a center of innovation, we can learn from the creative programs and ideas at work in other countries, and perhaps use these as inspiration to improve the senior experience in America.
In response to the burgeoning population, Japan has instituted a special currency known as Fureai Kippu (translated, it means Caring Relationship Tickets). The basic unit of currency is one hour of volunteer service to an elderly person. Participants volunteer their time and are compensated with credit that can be used for themselves or a loved one. Seniors can help other older citizens and earn currency which can then be banked and “spent” on their own care. Younger family members living at some geographic distance from their loved ones can earn credits by helping seniors in their own neighborhoods and then transferring the credits they accrue to their aging parents.
Japan instituted the the Orange Plan, a sweeping package developed by the government to take care of seniors, in 2015. It provides for medical staff, home visits and support for family caregivers. One town, Matsudo, took the program a step further and became what is known as a “dementia town”. Equipped with a large percentage of older residents, the town leaders felt it was important to plan for the consequences of dementia.
Included in the dementia town program are special QR codes ironed into the clothing of older people to help identify who they are if found wandering, and neighborhood patrols where volunteers check the area for homes that appear neglected (i.e. flyers and newspapers accumulated on the doorstep) and then alert police so they can perform a wellness check. Cafes are run by volunteers who have received special education about dementia – residents and their family caregivers can gather here and offer support to one another. Those who have received this special education wear bright orange bracelets to make them identifiable to people in the community who may be confused and in need of help.
Among the more intriguing ideas put in practice in The Netherlands is a program wherein Dutch university students live in nursing homes. The benefits are many for all concerned. In exchange for 30 hours volunteering with the senior residents each month, students live rent-free in their own rooms. They spend time teaching new skills, such as social media use, and play musical instruments to entertain residents.
The senior residents benefit immensely from contact with younger people who spend time with them, keep them up to date on the outside world and form real connections. The hope is that the students will continue to volunteer after they graduate college.
The Netherlands is also home to Hogewey, a tiny village where every resident is contending with dementia. Here, they are afforded the opportunity to live a “normal” life. The live in houses with other residents and a care provider. The village is walled for security. Cameras monitor the residents as they move about the town. There are shops where residents can pick up merchandise (i.e. groceries) but no money is exchanged. The clerks in every shop wear street clothes but are trained caregivers there to serve the residents. Some liken this approach to the movie, “The Truman Show”. Perhaps because of the sense of purpose and opportunity to do “normal” things, residents of this special village live longer and require fewer medications than their counterparts in more traditional settings.
Two alternative housing arrangements set Germany apart from some other countries when it comes to senior care. One is known as a shared apartment. It’s a home in the community shared by eight roommates who all happen to have dementia. There is 24-hour nursing care in the home, as well. Otherwise, it is much like a typical household.
The roommates share simple household responsibilities, such as pushing a vacuum, to the extent they are able. They draw, arrange flowers and pursue other interests, just as they would at home. Residents continue to have access to the wider community and family members can spend the night in the guest room.
Also established in Germany are multigenerational homes. This innovative approach situates a building of 85 senior-occupied apartments equipped with round-the-clock assistance right next door to a nursery school. The children enjoy recess in a yard shared with the senior building. The seniors continue to be part of the fabric of the community and enjoy the presence of the children in their everyday lives.
China has particular challenges in managing the care of seniors. In a country where family still shoulders the primary responsibility for care of elders, younger family members are in short supply. The one-child rules enforced by China for many years has resulted in a marked shortage of potential family caregivers. As younger generations flocked to the cities, they left their parents behind in the country where isolation is a serious issue.
One of their more interesting innovations in China is the development of a university for “70- somethings”. It is known as the University of the Aged, and it’s located in Rudong, China. This thriving environment offers students and teachers alike a great sense of purpose, a place to go, and a means of connecting with others.
Here, older citizens perform in a symphony, take Latin dance lessons and take classes on more practical things like using a smart phone. There are calligraphy classes and opportunities to paint. The teachers are also seniors and they share skills they have honed throughout their lives. Students pay only a nominal fee with the Chinese government covering most of the cost.
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