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Editorial: Gov't must gain understanding of older shut-ins' harsh realities

The issue of social withdrawal has long been considered a problem among children and young adults, with focus being put on adults continuing their social isolation beyond their school years, after a refusal to go to school earlier in their lives served as a catalyst.

    Recently, however, the focus of social isolation has shifted to people middle-aged and older. There is concern that financially strained households with middle-aged shut-ins and elderly parents are on the rise. Because of such worries, the government is set to conduct a survey on social reclusiveness of people between the ages of 40 and 59.

    When periods of social withdrawal last for a long time, the likelihood that people will face multiple hardships, such as developing illnesses and disabilities or falling into poverty, increases. There needs to be speedy collection of data on the current state of affairs and the establishment of countermeasures.

    The subjects of such surveys that the government carried out twice in the past were between the ages of 15 and 39. In the 2010 survey, there were around 700,000 people who had not gone to school or work for at least six months. In the 2015 survey, that figure went down to approximately 540,000, but the number of people who had shut themselves in for seven years or longer went up from 17 percent to 35 percent, indicating that social withdrawal had become lengthy and more common among older people.

    At least one survey conducted by a municipal government showed that social reclusiveness was most common among those 40 and older. There are additional survey results that indicate that shut-ins past the age of 40 have been socially isolated for an average of at least 22 years.

    The period between 1993 and 2005, following the burst of Japan's economic bubble, is known as the "employment ice age." There was a dearth of jobs with good working conditions, and many people fresh out of college were employed as non-regular workers or became NEET, also known as young people "not in education, employment or training." A portion of these people overlap with the population of middle-aged and older shut-ins today. There's a possibility that the number of older shut-ins will increase unless people can find stable employment and independence.

    In recent years, the situation in which parents in their 80s are forced to look after children in their 50s -- dubbed "the 8050 problem" -- has risen as a new social challenge.

    Many families find themselves in straitened circumstances without public assistance. There have been reports around the country of murder-suicides involving elderly parents despondent over the future of their ill or disabled children in their 40s and 50s.

    Businesses that take large sums of money from clients in the name of supporting those who are socially reclusive have been growing in number. It has been pointed out that some of them force clients to undergo harsh "training" that is neither effective nor has any scientific basis.

    The government survey should not only come up with an estimate of the number of middle-aged and older people who are socially isolated, but also work to understand the lifestyles and health situations of such shut-ins and their families. In cooperation with municipal governments and nonprofit organizations, the central government must implement speedy relief measures, and provide assistance for older shut-ins once their parents have passed away.

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