RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Japan has the oldest population in the world. Nearly 27 percent of the people there are 65 or older. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, so, of course, she wanted to go there and check it out. She did, and she's now back sharing her reporting. This week on NPR, you'll hear her stories on how Japan is changing as its population grows older. Ina joins us now from our studios at NPR West. Hi, Ina.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: First off, why is Japan the oldest nation in the world?
JAFFE: Well, it's not really because people live longer, although they do have a life expectancy about five years more than in this country. But really it's because the population is shrinking. Women there just aren't having as many babies. So if nothing changes by the year 2060, people aged 65-plus will make up at least 40 percent of the population there.
MARTIN: Wow. So I imagine that could, in turn, have an impact on the economy.
JAFFE: Yeah, that's a real concern there because you have both this big decline in working-age population and then a strain on the social security system. So one of the government's ideas for dealing with this is to get more older people into the workforce and keep them there longer.
MARTIN: How do they do that? I mean, you can't force people to work longer - or can you?
JAFFE: Well, actually the bigger problem in Japan is that you can force people to retire. They have mandatory retirement there. And the age has been 60, though they're gradually raising it to 65. And you can keep working past mandatory retirement age sometimes, but there's not a lot of incentive because once you hit 60, your salary usually drops to a fraction of what you made before. So, you know, Americans would be on the phone to their lawyers, right?
JAFFE: But this is an accepted practice in Japan, and it's one of the things that some people I talked to say will have to change.
MARTIN: Something else that goes along with an aging population, unfortunately, can be Alzheimer's, other forms of dementia. Is that a concern there?
JAFFE: Oh, definitely. You know how one of the symptoms of Alzheimer's, for example, is wandering, right? So in Japan last year, more than 12,000 people with dementia were missing long enough to be reported to the police. And while most were found alive within a week, nearly 500 were found dead and 150 were never found.
MARTIN: Oh my. So what is Japan doing about this? I mean, can the government do anything about that?
JAFFE: Well, I went to a city called Matsudo that's taken a sort of community approach. For a few years now, they've been giving dementia awareness training to pharmacists and postal clerks and just people who volunteer to take it. And part of the thinking is that if you can't keep people from wandering, maybe you have a whole community that can keep them safe when they do. And this approach is now part of Japan's nationwide plan to deal with dementia, and millions of people there have already taken this training.
MARTIN: So what's it like to just spend some time in that country? I mean, do you see evidence of that aging population?
JAFFE: Oh, you do. In the cities, for example, (laughter) one of the places you see it is convenience stores. And one of the things they're doing to compete is finding ways to cater to their aging clientele. You'll find products there you'd never see in your local mini mart like prepackaged meals for people who have trouble chewing. But really the place that you see aging of Japan most clearly is in the rural areas. There's a term you hear in Japan, it's village on the edge, as in village on the edge of extinction. I went to one a few hundred miles south of Tokyo where the population has gone from around 300 people to just 30.
JAFFE: It's now known as Scarecrow Village because a woman who lives there has repopulated the place by making scarecrows and putting them at the bus stop and in the school and in all the places people used to be.
MARTIN: That is a haunting image.
JAFFE: It is. It's amazing to be there.
MARTIN: You can hear Ina's stories on the aging of Japan this week on other NPR programs or find them online at npr.org. Ina, thanks so much.
JAFFE: Thank you.
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