Tokyo: Japan, one of the most rapidly ageing countries in the world, is looking for solutions to the growing demand for services aimed at providing care to the elderly, a sector that promises a large economic return in the future. And through new research, several promising solutions have already begun appearing on the horizon.
These days, Hiroshi Kobayashi of the Tokyo University of Science is working on the design of a machine that helps bed-ridden people get up from the bed and another that helps them sit on and get up from the toilet.
The project, that years ago would have seemed unreal, is one of many that the private sector is engaged in in the Asian country where the number of very old population is rising.
According to data published in April by Japan's ministry of health, there are nearly 32 million Japanese above 64 years, a figure that represents 25 percent of the population of the country.
Out of these, 5.4 million require some kind of assistance, a figure that will be even higher by the year 2050 when the elderly will constitute nearly 40 percent of the society, according to government forecasts.
Among all of Kobayashi's projects, one that is already a reality is an exoskeleton designed especially for the elderly care sector.
The device, that is now being mass-produced by the Kikuchi corporation, basically allows a person to lift 30 kg effortlessly.
Kobayashi specifically designed this system for carers after the head of a company dedicated to elderly care spoke to him about the lower back pain that the employees of the company suffered from by having to put the elderly in and out of bed or bath.
The equipment is perfectly suited to move dependents using a system of "artificial muscles".
These muscles, that are supported on the back of the person using the mechanism, become taut when the user blows through a reed which activates an injection of compressed air.
The subject then just needs to be held, while the machine does the rest, producing the strength of the spine muscles and pushing back the shoulders.
Although the device comes at a steep price (between around $2,950 and $7,885), the manufacturer, who is expected to sell around 1,000 pieces this year, offers the option of renting it for around 180 euros per month.
"Currently there are many positions in the industry which women or people of a certain age cannot occupy due to the enormous physical effort they require, but I hope that that changes with this apparatus," Kobayashi told Efe in a recent demonstration of the exoskeleton, which has also caught the attention of logistics firms.
Another innovation in the sector comes from the JC Group, a company running day-care centres, that was founded by Hideaki Fujita seven years ago with the idea of offering a more warm and personalised service to its clients.
In the first place, JC does not construct specific facilities, instead spending a much smaller sum to acquire vacant houses (a growing phenomena in Japan due to the diminishing population), which are then refurbished.
The result is a much less impersonal environment where it provides services to a maximum of 10 clients employing 10 carers in three shifts, which means that there is one caregiver for three persons, a much better ratio than that of other such services in Japan.
The JC staff explains that for people suffering from senile dementia it is very traumatic to go to a centre where there are more personnel and elderly people because more faces increase their confusion and frustration.
Therefore, each employee in the JC centre carries a different-coloured pole that shines so that the senior citizens can identify them.
The company has also signed an agreement with an agency representing artists that sends its upcoming musicians to the centres, where, in addition to working as personal assistants, they also perform for the elderly.
Fujita explains that the number of day-care centres has shot up ever since the company was founded, going from 5,000 to 35,000 due to the sharp increase in demand.
"By 2015 we want to have 1,000 branches in Japan where we have the long-term target of 6,000", said Fujita, who is also considering expanding to Taiwan and China.