“Welcome! Please relax and have a seat.” Women smiling gently were serving coffee and there was full of joyful chatting. Not just smiles, but bright yellow aprons and the soft colored orange roof written Ateraano Asahi seems to welcome people happily. It looks like a kind of place lighting up the small, quiet neighborhood of Asahi-machi.
“I want to make Asahi a place where everyone can live well,” says 72 year-old Masako Yamanaka, “even they get old or have a physical disability. That’s our biggest goal.”
Masako is president and founder of Ateraano Asahi. It has been running since May 2007 and plays an important role connecting people who live in Asahi-machi.
Nowadays, Kochi’s increasing population aging is considered a serious problem. It is 10 years ahead of the whole country in Japan. According to the Kochi prefecture office, by 2020, Kochi’s aged population will be 34.6% compared to the national population of 29.2%. Even now, Kochi has the second highest rate in Japan.
What makes this even worse, is the high number of solitary elderly people (older than 65 ) in Kochi (12.7%), compared to the national rate (7.9%), also in second place nationally.
“Asahi is a very aging town,” explained Masako. “Lots of elderly people are spending all day without talking to or meeting anyone.”
The data of population aging rate shows that among eight of the fifteen sections of Asahi town, more than half of people over 65 years old are living alone. Also, according to the Kochi prefecture public-opinion, 55.8% of people who live in Kochi think that social connection and support are getting weaker. The shopping area where people used to meet daily is all but a memory.
“Many store fronts are shuttered now, and people can’t have a conversation with neighbors without ringing a doorbell.”
Books, cloths, accessories, honeys, fresh vegetables…in Aterano Asahi, there is a booth filled with various kinds of things.
“People are free to bring things here and sell,” said Masako. “Getting old is not just aging. It means that their experience and knowledge are rich. Here is a place to display and share their specialty.”
The poverty issue among isolated elderly people is also considered as a serious problem.
“Many people in Asahi are falling into depression because of not having money or a job,” said Masako. The national pension is small, and the stern public eyes directed at those who get welfare cause this. “The most important thing to solve this is to have the local connection and support each other.”
Aterano Asahi delivers more than a hundred handmade box meals (obentou) for lunch and dinner all 365 days a year. Also, they provide housework support such as cleaning, shopping, cooking, and even driving folks to the hospital. These activities are key to those who can’t live by themselves because of physical or mental reasons.
“Please help. My friend is becoming more and more thin, but I don’t know what to do.” said one man. There was an elderly lonely living man with dementia. Due to dementia, he tended to spend his pension all at once and couldn’t have stable meals. No one noticed and was not able to help this man. However, thanks to the obentou delivery, the elderly man was able to continue to live an independent life.
“‘I believed if I came here, my problems will be solved somehow!’ that was the most delightful word,” Masako said. “We are not an aging issue professional nor a nursing professional, but we feel very happy to be trusted.”
“I have an ideal image of this town, Asahi,” Masako said with passion in her eyes. “A town which has a system to help each other by people cooperating with their expertise. As policemen search wondering elderly and keep them safe, we will support them by sending meals and building close relationship.”
This year, May 13th in 2017, it was Aterano Asahi’s 10-year-anniversary. During this ten years, in every February third. they visit each house in Asahi and hand out small candies and beans with hand written messages, ‘Let’s live this year too, cheerfully and together!’ “This activity has a meaning to tell people that you’re not alone, and we’ve never forgotten you.”
Today also Aterano Asahi is bringing fortune and lighting up Asahi-machi, little by little.
“Some elderly people put their hands together in a formal expression of thanks, and show their thanks a lot. We won’t close Aterano Asahi even though we get old. As long as we are needed, we will be here.”