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Let’s End Kodokushi

By Trena Winans, Education & Community Outreach Director

It is a sad fact that first responders in our community and across the nation periodically find someone near death or already long gone who might have been able to survive if only someone had gotten to them sooner. Many of us have read or heard distressing stories of people not found until they are in an advanced state of decay. I wish I could say that kind of thing only happens far away, but the reality is that it happens here in our community and is not all that uncommon. I will spare you the horror stories, but suffice it to say, I am confident it is not how anyone wants their life to end.

In Japan, there is a word for this, “kodokushi,” or lonely death. It has become so common in that nation that there are now businesses specializing as “lonely death squads” in the task of cleaning out the homes of elderly people whose death went unnoticed for weeks or months.

Although our community does not face this challenge on the scale that Japan does, it does happen. The vast majority of older adults wish to remain independently living in their own home, and do so. There are numerous benefits to aging in place. I just would like to strongly encourage you to also work to put safety checks in place. Here are some steps you can take if you live alone:

Get and carry a personal medical alert system or at least keep your cell phone within arm’s reach at all times. I can’t tell you how many people I have known who get a system, only to not keep it with them. It does you no good if it is not on you when you have an emergency.

Connect with your neighbors. Make sure they are specifically watching for some kind of signal from you each day. It helps if the check-in is very predictable and specific. Maybe you will wave from your kitchen window at 8:00am every morning, or make eye contact when you walk to your mailbox each day at 4:00pm. If all a neighbor is doing is noticing they haven’t seen your car leave the driveway all week or that your grass is getting long, you could have been in need of help for a very long time.

If you are eligible for Meals on Wheels, there is a volunteer stopping at your house five days a week. Just make sure you let them know if you won’t be there on a certain day and also arrange for a different check-in on the weekends.

Make a phone call to someone every single day at a certain time. If they don’t hear from you, they should then know that they need to follow up right away to make sure you don’t need help. You may have family who can call you each day, but if they struggle to do that in the midst of their work and other family obligations, take the initiative and be the one to make the call.

Arrange for a service that calls you once a day and alerts others if you don’t answer or follow prompts. A quick search online turned up some automated daily call systems that call for $17 a month and services offering live calls beginning at $30 a month.

None of us knows when we might have a bad fall, stroke or other health emergency that leaves us in need of prompt help. Remain independent in your home if you are able to do so, but please make sure there is a good system of checks if you are living alone. Let’s put an end to kodokushi in this community.