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2017.04.30

The meaning of death for the oldest-old people 2017.3.

Annual of the Institute of Thanatology, Toyo Eiwa University

Vol.Ⅷ, 2017

pp.83-102

 

The Hope of Vertical Communication

The meaning of death for the oldest-old people

 

by Naoki MORISHITA

 

In the 20th century, people had their interests in “death by disease.” Similarly, thanatology or bioethics focuses on this type of death. However, in the 21st century, the focus has moved to “death by aging.” The background is the super-aging society. And its top runner is Japan.

In Japan, the number of centenarian has already surpassed 65,000 as of 2015. And 10% of the total population is over 80 years old. The direct factors of super-aging society are longevity, declining birthrate, depopulation in certain areas, and so on. Under these conditions, the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing in all generations.

There are four approaches to deal with the challenge to this bipolarization. The first is reforming labor markets to recruit the old, women, robots, and foreigners. The second is remaking social security systems like the pension. The third is reconstructing access to mutual help, including volunteer activities. And the fourth is reconsidering our view of human beings, life, and death to enable us to adapt to a super-aging society.

The most important key to this challenge is the old generation who are connected to all the approaches. Indeed, the participation of the healthy old in various social fields should be encouraged more. However, only two modern types of old people have been described. One is “the passive type” who depend on family care. The other is “the active type” who are enjoying life, being independent and putting emphasis on pleasures. Therefore, a new comprehensive view of aging is needed.

We propose the concept of “re-aging gerontology” to establish this view. The word “re-aging” means that mature aging is not the final state of the aged, but process of our life, which is being continually reconsidered. Imaging a life span of 100 years, in which the old can be classified into four stages: pre-old (from 51 to 64), young-old (from 65 to 74), old-old (from 75 to 84), and oldest-old (over 85). “The passive type” may be suitable to the old-old, whereas “the active” may be more suitable to the pre-old. Re-aging gerontology re-classified the young-old as the agent to form communities, that is, “the community-forming type.”

Nevertheless, there is no clear answer to how the oldest-old behave, of whom belong over 5 million people in Japan. They often do not express any desire about their future and seem not to care about themselves. These may be called “the completely passive type” or “the self-neglect type.” We have to consider how to encourage them from the perspective of “re-aging gerontology,” not of Tornstam or of Ericsson. It is because those models and that of Zen Buddhism cannot be applied to an overwhelming majority of contemporary and future Japanese.

In this article the focus is on the death of the oldest old and presents a new model for them from the perspective of “re-aging.” A clue can be found in so-called “consolation communication” between those who have passed away and the living, which is supposed to exist in human beings universally. This communication is included as part of “vertical communication” along the axis of irreversible time from birth to death. Vertical communication needs a vertical community. When the oldest-old can form their own community, they can have their own meaning of life and hold the hope to be together with familiar others even after their death.