Kodokushi (孤独死) – lonely death (dying in loneliness)
Although this is a Japanese word, the use of it has become so common that it has now been much accepted as a term in the English vocabulary. In Japan, especially in 2013, ‘kodokushi’ was a social problem. 2371 people who died in that year were cases of ‘kodokushi’. Many of them were older men in their sixties who were living alone, socially isolated from family and friends and also living in poverty. This problem typically starts during 60 to 65 years of age, a period where there is no income for someone who retires before the pensionable age of 65. Many of these ‘kodokushi’ cases were found in rental flats, sometimes months after their deaths. The publicity given to ‘kodokushi’ has led to a reluctance among flat owners in renting out to older people who want to live by themselves. Thus, there is a housing shortage for older people.
Recently, to solve such housing shortages, Fukuoka City Welfare Council had initiated a guarantee plan. An elderly person who wants to rent a place and live by themselves could enrol in a plan where he or she will have to deposit a certain sum in advance with the welfare council in order to be able to rent a place. In case the person passes on, this plan will allow for the individual’s funeral to be organized and paid for. It serves as a form of guarantee to the owners as well, as the plan includes expenses to clean up the property when a death occurs.
While ‘kodokushi’ in Japan is a grim realization of the disintegration of family structures and community mutual help systems in Japan, older people dying alone is a tragedy that could happen in any country and society. In Singapore, an interviewer whom I know had once discovered a ‘kodokushi’ case while she was knocking on doors to request for interviews with the older residents there. As she was going around, she noticed a foul smell coming out from one of the flats. Many of these tragedies could have been prevented if help was rendered early. So, let’s keep a look out for our elderly neighbours who are living alone and provide timely help whenever needed. This could save lives.
Dr. Thang Leng Leng
National University of Singapore (NUS)
(Writer is a member of iCare Life Advisory Board)