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Young carer of father with dementia reflects on experience, need to open up (Pt. 1)

Naoya Ohashi, right, and his father are seen in this photo taken in 2012 when they climbed Mount Takao in the suburban Tokyo City of Hachioji. (Provided by Naoya Ohashi)

TOKYO -- Naoya Ohashi was in his second year of junior high school when his father was diagnosed with early-onset dementia at the age of 50. The 27-year-old former "young carer" wishes to tell children who take on the burden of looking after family members as he once did that they don't have to go through it alone.

    In middle school, when Ohashi revealed to classmates that his father became unable to work, they made fun of him as someone who was "at risk of becoming homeless." In high school, even when he confided about his home situation during a guidance session for his future path, his teacher brushed him off and said, "Don't blame your parents for how badly you're doing at school." The teen soon found himself scared to talk about his personal life, and carried all of its weight alone throughout his adolescence.

    After coming of age, Ohashi joined an organization for young caregivers, and learned that he himself was a "young carer" as a child, while also realizing that there was a group of people who could relate to the problems and burden of looking after family. He now aspires to spread this message to children currently in the midst of being young carers.

    Ohashi lived in Tokyo with his parents, who both worked. It was in the summer of 2007, when he was a first-year middle school student, that his father increasingly began to take days off work, and finally stopped going altogether. When he asked his father what happened, he told him that he'd quit his job. When asked why, he simply answered, "It's none of your business." Ohashi's father shut himself in his room, and spent his time reading and playing games, as his days and nights became reversed.

    Ohashi says his father was strict but also kind. When he was young, he threw himself into soccer, swimming, tennis and other sports, and had physical strength. Ohashi has memories of catching fish and building campfires with his father, who loved the outdoors.

    However, his father changed completely, and his words and actions turned violent. One night, he suddenly grabbed Ohashi's mother, now 60, by the collar and tried to hurl her off their second-floor balcony, before a bewildered Ohashi rushed to stop him. There was also a time when he punched Ohashi, who was studying in his room, saying, "Who gave you permission to stay up until this hour," even though it was not even 10 p.m. yet. In spite of this, the next day he acted nonchalantly as if nothing had happened, and it seemed that he did not remember the events of the previous day.

    Although Ohashi's family had his mother's income, they fell into poverty due to his father's unemployment. The family fell behind on payments for electricity, gas and other utility bills, and spent one night with a candle as their only light source. Neighbors who heard of the situation suggested that his father might be sick. Ohashi's father was then examined at a psychosomatic department and diagnosed with depression.

    Ohashi was satisfied in a sense once he was able to attribute his father's abnormal behavior to an illness. He began to take his father out on walks, and played video games with him until late at night. As Ohashi approached his father in a manner that put the least amount of stress on him as possible, his father began to calm down. Eventually, looking after his father in this way became a daily routine for Ohashi.

    His father continued to take antidepressants for over half a year. While he showed emotional fits less frequently, his memory loss only got worse. Soon, he became incapable of remembering conversations that took place just one hour before, and was examined at an outpatient department for memory loss. In January 2009, when Ohashi was in his second year of middle school, his father who had turned 50 was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

    The diagnosis of a specific disease brought only a brief moment of relief. Ohashi's mind went blank upon hearing the doctor's subsequent words: "It cannot be cured with the current medical technology. As it began at a young age, the disease will progress quickly, too. He has roughly six to eight years left. At most, he can last for 10 years." After being informed that his father could only live for 10 more years at most, Ohashi decided to treasure their remaining time together.

    Due to financial reasons, he only applied to one metropolitan high school, avoiding private schools with expensive tuition, and passed the exam. In spite of this, during his second year at senior high, he was met with an unexpected response during a guidance session on future academic and career paths. After telling the teacher in charge of the session about his family's financial problems resulting from his father's disease and inability to work, as well as about his situation of offering care for his father, he was told, "That's your family's problem, not yours."

    Around this time, his father frequently had his days and nights mixed up, but was still able to do things on his own. Although Ohashi had been looking after his father in the same way as when he was in junior high, by watching TV and taking walks together, his teacher jumped to conclusions without hearing him out about any of these burdens. The teacher went on to say, "Don't blame your parents for how badly you're doing at school," and "Stop running away from reality."

    Ohashi was greatly disappointed. He began to shut others out because he felt, "Nobody's going to understand anyway. I'm going to stop counting on other people."

    (This is part one of a series)

    (Japanese original by Kentaro Mikami, Digital News Department)

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