According to a survey on life after retirement, conducted by an insurance company, people are most worried about “becoming ill, bedridden, or senile,” followed by “having financial difficulty” and “living alone and being lonely.” Meanwhile, it is said that Japanese people living in retirement homes in the US have unique problems — language and food. We interviewed Ms. Yuko Takahashi Severson, chair of the“ Build a Happy Japanese Retirement Home in San Diego” Project. She told us how she started the project with the motto“ Support Seniors’ Comfortable Living and Peace of Mind.”
—— What made you start the project?
Currently, there are some Japanese retirement homes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other cities. Unfortunately, the one in San Diego has an income-level requirement to determine the eligibility of residents. While our society is aging, more and more Japanese seniors in “America’s Finest City” wish to find Japanese retirement home operated by a nonprofit organization.
Quite a few Japanese seniors have moved out of Americanoperated retirement facilities because of their food preferences or communication problems. Although many foreigners in the US have chosen to live outside their own countries, they miss the language and customs of their countries as they grow older. Japanese come to miss the Japanese language and food. Imagine if there were a “home for the last stage of life” in San Diego, where you shared the same culture and customs as the other residents 20 to 30 years after retirement — the most joyous, precious time in life. Don’t you think it is encouraging? Having more choices in life means having a brighter future full of hope.
—— Can you tell us about the history of housing complexes for senior citizens in the US?
In the 20 years following the 1960s, many private nursing homes were built in the US. Most of them were facilities for so-called “granny dumping.” We saw a rapid decline in such facilities as the federal government revised its licensing system for nursing facilities in 1987.
Then came the “assisted living homes” operated by nonprofit organizations and good companies.
Some people with goodwill opened their homes and lived together with senior citizens who required care. That’s the origin of assisted living homes. There are different types of assisted living homes including independent living units, assisted living units and care service facilities. Medical facilities also of fer living communities that allow residents the ability to move to different living units within the facility according to their care needs.
It is noteworthy that Americans, whose society is obsessed with individualism, are strongly interested in “creating a new senior community” when it comes to the “living” and “welfare” of senior citizens. Meanwhile, Japanese, who tend to have a group mentality, are more interested in in-home care and consider care for senior citizens a private matter.
—— Can you tell us about Japanese retirement homes in the US?
Keiro Senior HealthCare in Los Angeles, which was founded in 1961, is the largest Japanese nonprofit organization in the US. It was founded by Mr. Fred Isamu Wada, a produce dealer and a leader of the LA Japanese community. Seeing that Japanese seniors were having problems with language and food in American facilities, Mr. Wada decided to found the organization, aiming to build a facilit y where Japanese seniors could live comfortably. Keiro Senior HealthCare has four separate facilities: a retirement home, an intermediate care facility, and two nursing home buildings. It also provides daycare programs for adults.
In Seattle, Washington, a nonprofit organization called Nikkei Concerns was founded in 1975 and has been the leader in promoting comprehensive support for Japanese seniors in the area. The organization was started by seven Nisei (second generation of Japanese Americans), who were concerned about the Issei (first generation) as they were growing old. The organization provides culturally-sensitive comprehensive care and operates various facilities, including “Midori Condominiums” for senior citizens, “Nikkei Manor,” an assisted-living apartment complex for senior citizens, “Seattle Keiro,” a nursing home, “Kokoro Kai,” an adult day program, “Keiro Daycare,” a rest center, and “Nikkei Horizons,” a continuing education facility for active seniors.
—— Can you talk about your parents?
My father, who was born in 1913, opened a photo studio in Yokosuka, Kanagawa in 1941, the year the Pacific War broke out. Before the war, there was a Chinjufu (a superior command in charge of the defense of naval ports) in Yokosuka. So my father took a lot of commemorative pictures of the soldiers. When my father was a teenager, he got hit by a pitch in a baseball game and developed osteoarticular tuberculosis. As a result, his legs were paralyzed for the rest of his life. Because of his immobility, he read various genres of books in bed. Also, his parents encouraged him to study photography, because they wanted him to learn a trade. Because of his disability, he didn’t have to go to war. Instead, he devoted his life to the social welfare of people with disabilities as a politician after the war. He first served as a city council member for the Socialist Party and later as a prefectural assembly member from the Democratic Socialist Party for eight terms, for 32 years.
My mother, who was born in 1919, was an activist. After the war, she joined the Japan Housewives’ Association, the pioneer of consumer movement engaged in a series of powerful activities with the slogan “Reconstruct Japan from the Kitchens of Housewives.” She used to participate in emonstrations day and night or petition the government with her fellow activists, including Ms. Shizue Kato, who played a central role in winning women’s suffrage. Raised in such an environment, my sister and I recall my parents never played a parental role. Consequently, we had to learn how to open the way to the future on our own.
—— Can you tell us about the turning point of your life?
On January 30, 2006, I had a major operation for my long-term chronic illness, lumbar spinal canal stenosis. Three years ago, I had a severe pain from my back through my legs, resulting in difficulty walking. After taking an MRI test, I was told that the tunnel of the spine had become narrower because of aging and was pinching the nerves. I was told that my condition required an operation. It would involve widening the space for the nerves by cutting the bones and ligaments on the back side of the spine as well as securing the spine by inserting metal screws into it after bone implantation. I wouldn’t be able to perform satisfactory work if I wasn’t healthy, I thought. I wanted to keep working on my plan to build a senior home. So I made the big decision to go for the operation. This is an aside, but I’ve heard Mr. Monta Mino, the TV commentator who served as master of NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” (New Year’s Eve Singing Competition) last year, suffered from the same illness as me. He had an operation this January, too.
Like my back problem, an event can play as a trigger, changing your life drastically in a positive way. I’ve read somewhere that a change involves a cycle of “start,” “emptiness,” “recovery,” and “security.” A person experiences a turning point in one of these stages. Come to think of it, I think that I’m experiencing a turning point of my life right now.
—— What’s your motto?
To have “the sensitivity to read others’ feelings, the insight to understand circumstances, and the ability to take bold action.” I’ve always liked to have a sense of flexibility and openness in my life. I am, by nature, fond of events and often too nice, so I’m not good at saying “No” when asked to do something. In my school days, I served as student body president and class president when I was asked. Before I developed the back pain, I used to drive to Los Angeles every Sunday to participate in reading-aloud activities with a group of volunteers called “Mimi Bunko” (Audio Collection). There, we would record readings in Japanese to make cassette tapes for rental. We would also visit retirement homes to read stories aloud, which we called “voice delivery service,” and perform picture-card shows.
—— What is your dream for the future?
My father died at age of 74 and my mother at 82. I believe their lives were fulfilling—they devoted their lives to society and people, although their contributions were tiny. You can increase your knowledge or assets, but if you do not use them wisely for society, then they become meaningless. I believe I have at least some of my parents’ genes. I’d like to keep working hard to build a Japanese senior home in San Diego.
FYI: Our group will be holding the first meeting at 2:00 p.m. on June 10, 2006, at Kokusai Travel (2815 4th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103). Everyone is welcome.