A couple paddles leisurely down the Kotsuki River in an orange kayak in the sleepy city of Kagoshima, located in the south of the Japanese island of Kyūshū. In the background, Sakurajima, one of Japan's most active volcanoes and symbol of the city, smokes slightly. This could be any scene in the landscape of this city of almost 600,000 inhabitants if it were not for the fact that between the two rowers there are more than 40 years of difference and they are part of a peculiar community located just a few meters from the river. Masatoshi, 80, was the first to move to Nagaya Tower a decade ago, while Hidaka, his partner on today's kayak ride, 38, was one of the last to join this community less than a month ago that currently has 43 members between 8 and 92 years old. distributed among the six floors of a building with rental apartments in which a community without dependence on blood ties has been fostered where they live independently and help each other if necessary.
"This neighborhood is inspired by the ancient Nagayas of the Japanese Edo period, which more than 150 years ago constituted a collective lifestyle. From children to the elderly, families, singles of different occupations, everyone lived in the same long compartmentalized house and around the common well they talked while doing laundry or housework," explains Yasunori, 72, who joined this project five years ago with his wife, Mutsuko, 70. "Nagaya Tower is a modern tenement house, a community that values the bonds of residents. Also, the owner is a doctor at the hospital next door, which is reassuring for older residents," he adds as he pulls weeds with his wife and a couple of children from the Muffin Child Development Support Office, located on the first floor of the building. The center for children with developmental disabilities is also part of the project and organizes activities with residents as part of its educational program, enriching both children and adults who dedicate their time to them. "Children learn rules and manners through interaction with older ones who are not members of their immediate family, developing communication skills," says Nobuhisa, 39, head of the center.
Dr. Haruhiko Dozono, 71, at the Dozono Medical House, opposite the Nagaya Tower, which he designed. Oscar Espinosa
The Japanese town of Kagoshima, with 600,000 inhabitants, on the island of Kyüshü. Oscar Espinosa
Yamamoto, 85, had lived alone since her husband's death. Three years ago she settled in Nagaya Tower to be accompanied. He has started teaching harmonica. Oscar Espinosa
Behind this project is the vision of Dr. Haruhiko Dozono, 71, who at age 43 founded one of Japan's first palliative care clinics, where she realized that most of her mentally impaired patients suffered from social isolation and psychological loneliness. He believed that what they needed was not medication, but human interaction, but he was aware that there were not many opportunities or places where those connections were created. So he decided to create a space where those ties could take place. In 2011 it applied for a grant from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism with its Nagaya Tower project: a building intentionally constructed so that different generations could meet, with community spaces and shared facilities and with staff dedicated to supporting the lives of residents and connecting them to each other to generate that community life so important to combat loneliness of the elderly. which has become a significant problem in an increasingly aging Japanese society.
After his proposal was approved, construction of the complex began, which was completed in March 2013. "It was the first project of intergenerational coexistence in Japan," says the doctor proudly, "and I am happy to see that little by little this model of community life that fosters relationships between different generations is being replicated in other cities." Some of the residents are his patients, and he has been able to verify that since they live in the community and are more accompanied, their spirits have improved and, with it, their health. "In this country there are more and more elderly people who are alone," says Dr. Dozono, listing in the same sentence two of the biggest problems that Japan currently has, "and what Nagaya Tower seeks is precisely to combat this great problem."
According to United Nations data, in 2021 Japan had the oldest population in the world, when 29.8% of its inhabitants were 65 years or older, and it is estimated that this percentage will reach 37.5% in 2050. On the other hand, loneliness is another of the great concerns affecting the country and that has led the Japanese Cabinet Office to appoint in 2021 a minister for loneliness and Social Isolation to address this situation. A survey conducted by Japan's National Research Institute on Population and Social Security conducted in 2017 showed how 15% of older men living alone talk to one person or less every 15 days, while 30% feel they don't have reliable people they can turn to for a little help. even if it is something simple in your day to day.
Asahi (32 years old) has been working since 2015 supporting older residents in Nagaya. Here he delivers a ration of prepared food to 90-year-old Kamimura. Oscar Espinosa
At 92, former teacher Kaneko helps two girls with homework. Oscar Espinosa
Kukita (83) and Kaneko (92) attend the art workshop that Inada (64) teaches every month. Oscar Espinosa
At 80, Maratoshi helps Hidaka (30) get into the kayak. Oscar Espinosa
The next morning, like every Monday, Yasunori meets Kaneko, 92, and Yamamoto, 85, in the lounge on the second floor to practice music. "I'm learning to play the harmonica," Yamamoto says, laughing with her hand like a mischievous teenager. She decided to move to Nagaya Tower three years ago, when she became a widow, to be more accompanied. He begins to have some dementia and needs to write down everything he has to do on a small board at the door of his house so as not to forget. Yasunori, sitting in front of them with his guitar, acts as a teacher. And although he confesses that he is only an amateur, Kaneko and Yamamoto follow him attentively with their harmonicas. The atmosphere is relaxed, and between songs they take the opportunity to have a few laughs telling each other battles. Mutsuko, who has accompanied her husband, is sitting at another table doing Sudoku, where Tamaoki, a 70-year-old neighbor who has been in the community for a decade, soon joins and also starts solving sudoku while an Okinawa song played with the harmonicas and accompanied by the chords of the guitar plays in the background.
Residents come to Nagaya Tower because they want to be in a community and at the same time have their own space. "When someone new wants to live here, we make sure to explain the philosophy of this place and encourage residents to interact and help each other," Asahi explains during his daily round, in which he checks that the older residents are doing well and that they have taken their medication, if any.
Asahi, 32, and Tomoru, 38, are in charge of managing the building, building community and supporting the lives of the residents. "We often see residents playing music together, chatting in the common space or in their own rooms, or helping the little ones with their homework," says Asahi. People over 70 pay an additional fee for life support services, and younger people can receive discounts on rent if they get involved in tasks for the community like changing light bulbs, moving furniture or throwing away trash. The idea is that all residents help each other and don't hesitate to ask for help when they can't do something alone. More than 60% of its residents are over 70 years old, but there are also younger people who choose to live here to be part of a community – including a family with five girls between the ages of 8 and 17 – making these intergenerational relationships possible.
In Nagaya one feels closer to life
Kukita, 83-year-old neighbor
A message on a small blackboard next to the elevator at the entrance of the building reminds us that at seven in the afternoon, in the community dining room on the second floor, there is a dinner. It is organized once a month and is one of the activities that has helped most to create the community that it is today, where neighbors bring something to eat and drink and which almost everyone usually attends. From six o'clock there begins to be some movement. Little by little, residents are arriving with food. Some start to reposition the tables to form a single one that occupies practically the entire room; Others go to the kitchen to lend a hand to those who are cooking, and the older ones sit down where they will have dinner. "After coming to Nagaya Tower I feel rejuvenated; the nursing homes are full of old people, but here you stay young because you are surrounded by children and young people," says Kukita, 83, who arrived three years ago with his wife, Mikiko, 89, with a mischievous smile. They had spent some time in a nursing home when he became ill, but they did not feel comfortable and decided to look for an alternative. Kukita says she has regained her vitality and spirits, goes for a walk every day in the park, goes swimming in the pool, participates in the art workshop that is taught once a month and, above all, takes advantage of any occasion to talk and spend time with the children. "Compared to other centers, in Nagaya you feel closer to life," says Kukita as he chats animatedly with Takayoshi, 91, and Kaneko at one end of the table, waiting for the rest of the neighbors to arrive to start dinner. "I also decided to move here five years ago because there is a very good atmosphere, and although I live alone I do not feel alone," explains Kaneko, who has recently injured her knee and has difficulty walking, but does not miss any events in the community that give her the opportunity to interact with others.
Conversations where to catch up while someone proposes a toast, shared laughter and the little ones getting up every two by three from the table, going from one side of the room to the other, spreading their joy to the elderly. "I like to live alone, but not in solitude," says Takai, 37, "that's why I decided to live here." Born in Fukuoka, where he lived with his parents, he came to Kagoshima when he was 29 to do a treatment for atopic skin and found it practical to stay here so he didn't have to come and go. He felt at ease and stayed. He is one of the young residents who likes to share his time with the elderly. "I can learn a lot from elderly people through exchange," she says, staring closely at Morizane, 70, who arrived a year ago after becoming a widow. "We interact with each other through events like dinner tonight, and help each other from time to time if we have any problems," says Takai as Morizane smiles knowingly.
The building was designed in a V-shape so that everyone could see each other when they enter or leave their homes, which encourages them to greet each other and have small conversations when they cross paths, which is not a common practice in other places, according to Nagano, 27, who has lived here for two years. "The older ones place a magnet on the doors of their houses to warn when they leave so that others do not worry if they do not answer and the exterior balconies do not have partitions, so the houses are connected and that facilitates interactions between neighbors on a day-to-day basis," says Nagano while Masatoshi is encouraged to sing Blowin' in the Wind., by Bob Dylan, at the piano with the consequent ovation of all the attendees, making it clear that the motto of Nagaya Tower, "life is happy when there are people with whom to exchange smiles", is more than a simple phrase. After the applause, Masatoshi returns to his place at the table next to Hidaka. She only plans to stay six months. She has been working as a nurse for several years, in Japan and abroad. "I read that many activities were organized here and I thought it would be easy to make friends. It was clear to me that I did not want to go to a shared space where there are only young people; Older people are much more interesting by having more experiences, and this place seemed ideal to me," explains the young nurse who has already won everyone's favor. Masatoshi explains how at the party they did for his 80th birthday they gave him that cap that he always wears everywhere. He loves community life and boasts of being resident zero. "I signed up before the construction of the building was finished, and I will stay here all my life," he says proudly.
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