Older Women as Agents of Change

Roundtable at World NGO Forum on Ageing
Saturday, April 6, 2002
3:00 to 5:00 pm
Room G
Tess Canja, AARP President
Professor Keiko Higuchi (Japan) Women's Association for the Better Aging Society
Nijoli Arbaciauskiene, (Lithuania) Chair of the Elderly Women's Activity Centre, Kaunas, Lithuania
Help Age International Africa Regional Representative
This event will take the form of a panel discussion with AASP President Tess Canja acting as moderator. Panelists will offer regional perspectives o the following three topics.
  • Older Women as Caregivers
  • Older Women as Volunteers
  • Older Women's Contribution to Development
Followed by discussion.

The ability to cope with the stresses of life is a key ingredient to successful aging. The objective of this workshop will be to explore various arenas in which older women are acting as agents of change to improve their own life as well as the lives of their families and communities.

Women's Association for the Better Aging Society

I am Keiko Higuchi from Japan. I feel very honored to be here and given the opportunity to speak at the roundtable by AARP. As profession I am professor of university, teaching gender issues and family relations.

Today, I would like to speak as a representative of Women's Association for the Better Aging Society, which was established 20 years ago just when the World Assembly on Ageing was held in Vienna.

The majority of the members of Women's Association for the Better Aging Society (WABAS) are in their upper 60s including myself, and the rest range widely from 20s to 80s.

We are in a group of 14 members. Among the members, we have university professors, specialists in social welfare and medical fields, authors, journalists, politicians, and leaders of voluntary groups.

At present, WABAS has 1,500 individual members and 150 group members. It is a loose coordinating body in which member groups scatter throughout Japan.

First of all, I will explain about the Social Background at the Time of Establishment (1982-83).

The population over 65 years old exceeded 7 percent of the total population of Japan in 1970, 14 percent in 1994, and 17 percent in 2000. In the near future, Japan will be the first country in the world more than 20 percent of whose population are over 65. The transition in population structure has brought changes in the traditional family consciousness. In the 1970s, the total fertility rates were lowered to the 2-person level, and women began to seek their new lifestyles to lead their prolonged lives in better ways.

Even so, the society as a whole was still conservative. Care to the elderly parents was placed under family responsibility. The White Paper on Welfare in 1978 showed that elderly parents were living with their married child (mostly first son) and his family. When they became feeble in need of others' care, it was their son's wives who took care of them. The White Paper stated, "the high rate of elderly people living with their children is a latent asset in the country's welfare budget."

In the 1980s, when the increase in elderly population became a social issue, some local governments began to honor housewives who had devotedly given care to their aged parents in-law. A township enacted an ordinance to award devoted housewives.

Next, I would like to refer to our Activities. The first is about the elder care issue. The aging and aged society affects women's life. Currently, 85 percent of family caregivers, and more than 90 percent of occupational helpers are women. Some employed women must leave their jobs in order to give care to their parents-in-law, and they are forced to change their life designs. At present, more than 100,000 employees leave their workplaces due to the need for giving care to their aged parents, around 10,000 among whom are men. This shows that both society and families consider "care-giving is a job for women, and particularly, the duty of sons' wives living together." The critical nature of this problem had been overlooked. The Association took note of its seriousness and decided to address this issue as an emerging problem in an aging society. Due to the change in the age structure of our population, it was obvious that the elderly would not be able to receive high quality care to keep their human dignity with only family members, and we advocated the establishment of a system to support families and elderly people.

We conducted researches and studies on gender-sensitive issues that tend to be neglected in the macroscopic surveys conducted by the government. Based on the findings, we have developed advocacy activities.

We conducted surveys in 1987 and 1997 on the situation of family care. Members across the country interviewed family caregivers. They found many cases that can be described in a phrase "care-giving hell." Care-giving women injure their own health. They refrain from using welfare or private sector services for decency's sake, or their husbands do not agree to an idea of using outside help.

Based on the survey results, we made appeals to the Advisory Councils and various departments of concerned ministries. The Association thus played a propelling role in the enactment of the Public Long-Term Care Insurance Act in 1997.

We were instrumental in organizing "10,000 Citizens Rally to Promote the Socialization of Eldercare." I myself acted as co-chair in this gathering with famous lawyer Mr. Hotta, former public prosecutor who became the president of a social welfare foundation upon retirement. Trade Unions, experts, welfare workers and interested people took part in this meeting.

Next one is about older women's health. Following the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 when the concept of Reproductive Health/Rights was clearly defined, the Association proposed a policy to support the maintenance and promotion of women's health throughout their life spans.

We have carried out surveys on middle-age and older age women's health. One of them was on Menopausal Symptoms by status of women, i.e., housewives, working women and women in rural areas. We also made an international comparison between Japan and China and Korea

Through the surveys on menopausal symptoms, problems of husband-and-wife relations and the influence of care-giving on them are brought to the surface.

Another survey was on the Health Status of Elderly Women in their 80s and above.

Third example was on Diseases and Gender.
Reactions of family members when women (housewives) become ill, and responses by medical institutions.

Now we are going to take up a new subject, that is about Elder Abuse The facts about abusing elderly people under care will be surveyed, as this issue was revealed to be serious.

The findings of the research are reported at monthly meetings, annual assemblies, and at other occasions of the Association. Also the report is given through the media.

As the main goal of our Association, I would like to mention on our promotion of Women's Participation in Policy Making Processes.

The welfare policies are determined by the national government and are implemented by municipal governments. Upon the enforcement of the Decentralization of Administration Act and Public Long-Term Care Insurance Act in April 2000, greater power was mandated to local government.

The Association has been pouring greater energy into the promotion of women's participation in the national and local administration and political process. The Association conducted surveys among women members of local assemblies throughout the country to find what they thought about the welfare for the elderly people, and to find what percentage of the members of the committee for the Public Long-Term Care Insurance Scheme were occupied by women. We also organized study meetings for women members of the parliament and local assemblies. Thus, the Association has been making efforts to increase women parliament and assembly members who are well-versed in welfare issues.

Then, I would like to tell you about our Networking Activity.
We promote interaction among individual and group members of the Association as a matter of course. The issues raised at annual assemblies are reported in books published by a major publisher. We also organized, with the "Women and Health Network," a large-scale symposium on December 8, 2001 on the subject of "Women's Health. Experts were divided into three workshops, i.e. "Young Working Women," "Menopausal Health" and "Old Age Health." About 200 women from their 20s to 80s gathered and concluded that "healthy elderly women are resources of our society." By co-organizing this event with "Women and Health Network," with "health" as a common interest, we were able to form a network with younger generations.

Finally, I will introduce you some Activities of Local Groups.

One group in Kita-Kyushu, northern part of Kyushu Island is a large organization with more than 1,000 members. They provide childcare support for young mothers, and meal delivery service, home-help service for the elders that are not covered by the Long-Term Care Insurance.
They are now promoting to disclose information on care service providers.

A group in Osaka reviewed the Care Insurance in the second year of implementation from various standpoints, users, families, caregiving institutions, occupational caregivers, and women local assembly members. They looked into legal problems and other problems in the scheme. They devised an evaluation sheet, and filled it for each locality in Osaka, and will submit their proposal to the government.

In conclusion, I would like to state that in 2001, the Japanese government published the revised population projection. With the ongoing low fertility and prolonged life expectancy, by 2050, people at age 65 and over would occupy 37.4 percent of the total population, which is double the size of today. The average life expectancy would be 89 years for women and 80 for men. If so, 22 percent of the Japan's population (more than one out of five) would be women above 65. At any rate, the status of elderly women will greatly affect the society of Japan in this century, whether they are well off or poor, whether they can live independently or dependently, whether they are healthy or unhealthy, and so on. Currently, employment conditions for women are worse than those for men. In the current pension system, wives are considered to be dependent on their husbands. In case of divorce or a job change, women may not be able to receive any pension benefit. At last, the Japanese government decided on last year to revise the pension system to reflect changes in women's lifestyles. We, in the Association, since its inception, have been advocating a pension system to be gender-equal and in which women's contribution is calculated. The professor who chaired the Committee to review the current pension system is one of the founding members of our Association.

In spite of the large financial deficit, the government finally began to listen to women's voices in the advent of an aged society with low fertility. We will continue our activities involving men, and working in cooperation with concerned people both at home and abroad, to build the coming aged society to be a fair society in which every individual can have better life enjoying human rights.

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