Combining the Nursing Home and Childcare Center - Insight into 21st Century Solutions - Honorary Director's Blog



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Honorary Director's Blog

Combining the Nursing Home and Childcare Center - Insight into 21st Century Solutions

The declining birthrate and demographic aging are the largest problems facing Japan today. They are national issues that must be solved on a national scale. This clearly involves establishing nursing homes to address the growing numbers of elderly citizens. It also means establishing childcare centers to create a society where children can be born and raised without undue concern and to support child-raising to halt the dwindling birthrate.

At the beginning of the month, I had the opportunity to visit a facility on the outskirts of Tokyo that combined a nursing home and childcare center. It was operated by Benesse Style Care, which specializes in nursing care for the elderly and is an affiliate of Benesse Corporation, a company devoted to helping people lead better lives. The six-storied building has two entrances. Entering from the child-care center, I viewed the spacious nursing home. With easy access to the yard, children could be seen playing outside. A single glass door separates the large hall for joint use, and just beyond this, is the entrance to the nursing home. The elderly residents live on the second to sixth floors and are assigned rooms depending on the type of nursing care they need.

At this facility, there is scheduled social interaction between the elderly residents and young children for two short periods of thirty minutes in the morning and afternoon. At that time, the children sing and dance for the elderly residents. When I attended one of these sessions, I was very touched by gentle and caring atmosphere.

Soon after the facility opened, two incidents occurred which surprised the nursing home residents. First, a woman who had been confined to a wheelchair began to walk after several sessions with the children. A man who always looked irritable became friendly and good-natured after spending some time with them. This type of emotive information experienced through the gentle human contact in the interaction with children improved the emotional and motor functions in these elderly residents.

What did it do for the children then? There did not seem to be any particularly notable changes, but among families in cities where nuclear families tend to be the majority, it is unusual for children to interact with their own grandparents. For these children, they were able to feel this warmth and caring through contact with older people who were the same age as their great-grandparents. If this sort of interaction with the elderly can be made a part of the daily life of children in some way, wouldn't this surely have a positive effect on their emotional development? And the parents of the children and the families of the elderly had positive reactions to this as well.

Of course, this is not the only facility that combines a nursing home with a childcare center. At present, there are over 100 such facilities in Japan. It became a subject for discussion at the annual conference of Japanese Journal of Well-being for Nursery-schoolers held in Morioka about ten years ago. Nevertheless, this was the first time for me to actually see one and this visit prompted a number of thoughts.

First of all, considering the needs of both children and the elderly, such facilities should adopt a new type of barrier-free design that takes this type of interaction into account. Of course, it is important for child care centers to incorporate child-caring design, and if operations can also be organized appropriately, this will be advantageous for business. If employees can switch as necessary between the child-care center and nursing home, although this may be difficult to put into practice, it will be beneficial for their mental health and also raise their motivation.

These ideas are not only relevant in the context of the declining birthrate and demographic aging, but point to major trends in the twenty-first century. In fact, I believe that they are crucial to solving the problems that we face today as a mature society, materially rich, at least, and founded on scientific and technological progress supported by the reductionism of the twentieth century.

It has been long said that the twenty-first century will be an age of coexistence and collaboration, an era when disciplines will transcend reductionism to become integrated and comprehensive. In particular, fields of study pertaining to human beings are adopting a broad, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary approach that cuts across disciplines instead of a vertical specialization. And one can say that this development is based on advances in information research and technology.

In our daily lives, we can see this sort of development in the transportation system where the national railroad and private lines now share tracks, something that was not possible in the past. Now, in view of customer convenience, this has become something expected and totally unquestioned. Naturally, the advances in engineering have supported this change. With the touch of a card, we can now board any train.

Let's take medicine as a representative discipline and consider the education that it requires. A conventional medical education consists of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, as well as classes and labs in specialized fields such as internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, etc. For example, when most medical schools give a class on the liver, it is taught from the perspectives of anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry. And when it comes to an ailment such as a liver disorder, it is studied from the viewpoint of internal medicine, surgery, and even pediatrics. Studying the body in detail at the level of the organ, cell, molecule or gene will not cure illness. Medicine must consider and teach illness as it affects human beings who are cultural and social beings who feel pain and suffer.

This shift in medical education had already begun at well-known medical schools in North America Europe after the student demonstrations in the early 1970s when I made a inspection tour of international medical education at the behest of the then Ministry of Education. A long time ago, textbooks were difficult to obtain, but now any book is easily accessible and the libraries are well provided. In this sense, books supply specialized knowledge, and classes and labs are where this book knowledge turns into comprehensive, integrated living knowledge.

As far as children's problems are concerned, today there are fewer that result from one cause such as infectious disease and more psychological and behavioral problems that derive from a complex of factors. These problems require an interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach that will bring together all the fields that are related to children. This particular approach is what I call Child Science and I have been working to establish it as a field of study.

This approach is particularly important in government administration. It is now clear that the problems of children, our most important concern, cannot be solved by one agency or ministry alone. Shouldn't the sections that deal with children's issues in the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science & Technology (MEXT) and the Ministry of Health, Labour & Welfare be integrated? We need an organization specific to children such as the Ministry of Family and Children that we see in Scandinavian countries. The UK and South Korea are also moving in this direction.

Integrating social systems and facilities to enhance their functions, combining and integrating specialized areas of study to establish new fields--this is possible thanks to the new currents of thought in the 21st century. Whatever the issue, whenever we encounter a problem, shouldn't we attempt to at least consider a solution from this perspective?