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No Generation Gap Here

In a country with an aging population and an acute need for daycare, merging eldercare and childcare into a single facility—with the two generations interacting with and learning from each other—may be the most sociable solution of all.

Note: The “shirtless” education policy for kotoen kindergartens was instituted for the sake of health promotion.

Hearing the sounds of excited children from outside Kotoen on a weekday morning, you would figure this was just another nursery school. Yet when it’s time for morning exercises, energetic preschoolers one through five years of age stream outside to the playground area accompanied by elderly Japanese. The senior citizens join in the exercises and later on lead the children behind the school to pick up trash, a child’s small hand in each of their own.

The scene unfolding here in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward is a model of a new kind of facility for Japan, one that combines children’s daycare with a nursing home. Kotoen, which is registered as a social welfare corporation, accommodates about one hundred nursery school toddlers and one hundred elderly residents at this location. Kotoen CEO Keiko Sugi says the facility has four functions—nursing home, assisted care facility, seniors’ daycare center and children’s daycare center—just the thing for a country with both an aging population and a swelling demand for childcare from working parents.

Kotoen started in 1962 as a conventional nursing home. After a nursery school was built alongside the home in 1976, however, the children began visiting the nursing home on occasion for shared events. In 1987, the two facilities were integrated, and now interaction between the younger day visitors and the older permanent residents is a regular occurrence, including joint activities and visits each day to wheelchair-bound seniors living upstairs.

The benefits of the arrangement are obvious. The elderly help support daycare staff by voluntarily spending time and playing with the kids, even overseeing them during lunch. Sugi explains that the elderly can teach about crafts such as making origami, as well as share their life experiences and Japanese traditions.

Conversely, the children’s vivacity energizes the elderly, who range in age from 65 to 101. “The kids have that power,” notes Daiji Sugi, the nursery school director. “No matter how glum they were when they moved into the facility, even the toughest residents end up enjoying their presence. The interaction also motivates the elderly to eat the nutritious meals provided and stay healthy.”

Eighty-one-year-old resident Jinichi Yamazaki concurs, telling how much he loves spending time with the children. “They have tremendous energy,” he chuckles as he observes kids scurrying around to prepare for lunchtime. Indeed, as soon as the morning exercises were over, the children mobbed Yamazaki and his fellow seniors, hugging and clambering over them. Smiles broke out immediately on their faces.

CEO Sugi says that many initially worried about having rambunctious nursery school toddlers romping around their fragile elders. “People asked us, ‘What if the elderly catch a cold, or if children run into wheelchairs?’ ” she notes. “But we don’t allow sick children or adults to interact with each other.” And for the most part, she adds, the children are generally careful about not running around the occupants, especially those who are wheelchair-bound. “We teach the children that the elderly are fragile, that their lives are nearing their end, and that someday they won’t be here anymore.”
It is evident that Sugi’s facility has created a sense of real community. “We’re like one big family here,” she declares, comparing Kotoen’s three-story building to “a giant home.” For both the young who may not spend much time with their own grandparents and the old whose families may live far away, this provides perhaps the most vital care of all.