Living Alone in Late Adulthood

“the present is the best time of all,” was Mrs. Noda's reply when, after an extended interview, i asked her to identify the best period of her life. The reply came without the slightest hint of hesitation. After learning that she lives by Herself, one might wonder why. In early postwar Japan, parents often lived with a married child and his (or sometimes her) spouse and children. Threegenerational households provided elder care in a society that lacked a mature social security system (see Hashimoto 1996). Daughters-in-law were typically the caregivers, and caregiving was seen as a woman's duty as well as an expression of her femininity (Harris and Long 1993; Jenike 1997; Lock 1993, 2002; Long 1996; rosenberger 2001). The family-based elder-care system was associated with the respect and affection owed to the elderly, and a social stigma was attached to the non-family caregiving provided in elder-care institutions.

By the 2000s, however, a number of changes had occurred in the elder-care system. In 2000, a long-term care insurance program was introduced by the state, and the elderly could now hire nursing-care assistants. This professionalization of elder care brought a more neutral image to caregiving by non-family members (Jenike 2003, 183–184). Furthermore, prolonged life expectancies, the limited availability of co-resident daughters-in-law, and new ideas about caregiving have led to the diversification of caregivers. Many people wish to have their daughters rather than their daughters-in-law as caregivers, although such a preference was already clear before 2000 (see Long 1987, 2008). Women over sixty years old and even a growing number of sons and husbands now serve as family caregivers (Harris and Long 1999; also see Kawano 2010). Despite the rapid professionalization of elder care, an older person living alone is still associated with vulnerability—in both physical and emotional terms. In the 2000s, the media sensationalized the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone (kodokushi) as a grave social problem; a partly mummified body, lying unnoticed for months by neighbors or faraway kin, grimly symbolized the breakdown of community and family ties that used to support the elderly. The elderly themselves, however, do not always accept the negative images associated with living alone in late adulthood. A number of people prefer to live alone because by doing so, they do not need to worry about the difficult human relationships associated with three-generational living arrangements. For example, Mrs. Noda chose to live alone even though her married stepson had intended for her to live with him after the death of her husband. She has been living in a three-room unit in an old danchi (a community consisting of low-rise condo buildings) for the past thirty years, both with her husband and after his death, except for a brief period during his hospitalization and right after his death, when she stayed with her stepson and his family. Looking through the large sliding windows of her tatami-matted living/dining room, i could see a public school and flowering plum trees. Mrs. Noda told me, “Birds Come and visit.” In the small kitchen, a table, which Mrs. Noda had bought for her husband when she was caring for him, was now used to hold an ancestral altar. This small, black, cabinet-like altar accommodated her deceased husband's tablet (ihai). It was early March, and an electric carpet still remained in the middle of the living room. Central heating is uncommon in homes in the tokyo area, and an electric carpet is convenient in tatami-matted rooms, where people sit on the floor. It is thus that in Mrs. Noda's living/dining room there were no sofas or chairs.

Mrs. Noda went to live with her married stepson in a nearby city during the time when her husband was hospitalized, while her stepdaughter's family moved into the vacated condo unit. At that time the stepson thought her move was a permanent one, although it turned out to be temporary, as we will see below. Every day she commuted to her husband's hospital to look after him. Because Japanese hospitals used to be understaffed, it was common for a family caregiver to supplement the professional medical care provided by nurses and doctors (see Caudill 1961). Though for the past two decades understaffing has not been a major issue, the presence of a family caregiver at a hospital is still seen as an indication of strong family support and highly valued interdependence, despite the fact that hospitals are supposed to maintain a “complete” care system. Mrs. Noda told me, “when my husband passed away sixteen years ago, i stopped going to the hospital. I no longer had a place to go [during the day]. Then i came back to this danchi. My stepson told me that i was selfish [to have done so]. I did not like living with him and his family because i felt stressed by having to maintain smooth relations with them. . . . Also, when i was living in my stepson's home, i had no neighbors to talk to, as i knew no one there. . . . [since i've moved back to this unit], i am relaxed, living without worries.”

As a long-term resident, Mrs. Noda finds the condo community a convenient place. A bank, a supermarket, a park, and schools are all within a few minutes' walk. One afternoon, she took me to the supermarket. She walked into the store and quickly found what she was looking for—tofu, clams, salted shishamo (a kind of fish), and tuna. In addition to its convenience and familiarity, the community is a good place for Mrs. Noda, as she knows many neighbors. Some invite her to end-of-the-year parties, which she enjoys greatly. She goes to a public bathhouse during the winter months, not because her residence lacks a bath, but to socialize and enjoy the large, relaxing setting; she loves to chat with other regulars. She has given a house key to her neighbor next door so that she can check on Mrs. Noda: “i told her to open the door of my unit if she sees newspapers piling up outside the door.” Having a younger Neighbor in her sixties to depend on makes Mrs. Noda feel better about living alone. In short, the long-standing community network in her neighborhood provides her with social and emotional support, thereby allowing her to manage the vulnerability of living alone in late adulthood satisfactorily.

Mrs. Noda told me that she likes to use her body and move around. Every day, she would take a one-hour walk to a seaside park. There is a nice trail, and many people take walks or walk their dogs there. While we were walking together along the trail one day, she mentioned that she participated in the cleaning of nearby beaches as a volunteer: “every year i find strange objects, and last year i found a huge box.” After talking about her volunteering experiences at a nonprofit organization for a few minutes, she proudly told me, “several younger volunteers [in their sixties] caught cold and did not come to a meeting last week. I have not caught a cold for the past ten years! I take a walk every day and get exposed to cold air. That's why i am full of energy [genki].” She continued: “My favorite activity used to be work. I used to work as a parttime cleaner.” She told me that she never skipped work. She was tough and committed to it; she disliked complaining about physical pain: “i went to work even when i had all my teeth pulled.”2 she laughed: “the next day [after all the teeth had been removed] my face was swollen, but i still went to work. My husband called me crazy.”

Although Mrs. Noda loved to work, after working long enough to qualify for a pension, she eventually quit her job to travel. Since the death of her husband, she has taken many trips, including ones to Mexico, Hawaii, egypt, and Mongolia. During our interview, she told me that she planned to go to the silk road the following year.

Mrs. Noda is still active, but her memory is not as good as it used to be. Sometimes she cannot follow a tv show. She loses track of conversation in a group setting; she does not get a joke when others burst into laughter. She told me, “My daughter says that a hearing aid would help, but i went to a doctor and he said i am still fine without it.” She has a thorough health examination every year. She said, “My doctor tells me not to drink, but i drink one bottle of sake (180 ml) once a week anyway. I love it warm. I would rather shorten my life than not drink at all!”

Mrs. Noda's life has not been easy. She told me, “i was determined to live alone. I didn't think of getting married.” When i asked her why, she replied, “when i was young, i was very ill for a long time.” Mrs. Noda was born in 1930. When she was a young girl, marriages were typically arranged, and a social stigma was attached to illness. She continued: “since i was a daughter, My parents wanted to cure me without surgery. An operation leaves a large mark on the body [which was seen as damaging to her marriageability]. But a doctor told us that i had only half a year to live, so my parents agreed to an operation. Luckily it went well and i recovered.”

Mrs. Noda married a man who had lost his wife. He had two young children by the first wife and was twelve years older than Mrs. Noda. On the ancestral altar in her home, a photograph of her and her husband was displayed. The husband was seventy years old and she was fifty-eight when a friend took the photograph. Mrs. Noda raised her stepchildren, and they are now married and have their own married children. Both of the stepchildren live in nearby cities, and the stepdaughter occasionally visits her. She said, “i do not have children of my own. I refer to my stepchildren with the suffix 'chan' but not my grandchildren.” This suffix can be used to refer to one's own children in an affectionate manner, although it is certainly not a requirement. The suffix is also an affectionate but polite way of referring to the children of one's friends or neighbors. By always adding the suffix, Mrs. Noda is thus expressing her distance from the stepchildren. If the children were her own, she would not need to use it consistently. (Listening to her remark, i realized that my own step-grandmother always used the same suffix when she referred to me, whereas my blood grandmother did not always use such a suffix.)

Although Mrs. Noda was a second wife, she rapidly became part of her husband's network of kin. He had twelve siblings and many relatives. Mrs. Noda told me, “My husband's sisters all loved to sing and dance. They came with their children and we had parties together. We went to a nearby beach to dig clams and ate them together. My husband loved to have guests and often invited his colleagues to our home. He didn't worry about not having a special dinner for guests. He used to say, 'Just add some nappa [an inexpensive leafy vegetable] to a hot pot!'”

Mrs. Noda's husband used to be in the army. Many of his relatives had jobs related to the military. When she showed me his picture, i said, “what a handsome young man!” She replied, “He had delicate features, and in the army he was mistaken for a gay. Homosexuality was not uncommon in the military. . . . Once he complained to me that he was such a handsome man but that i was not very feminine.” She laughed and added, “i am not very feminine or sexy; i was a tomboy [otenba]!” Her husband's remark does not necessarily indicate a marriage without affection, however, as people in the older generations avoid openly praising their spouses. To do so would be considered bad manners and embarrassing. Moreover, in contrast to today's new marital ideals (see Mathews, this volume), in Mrs. Noda's youth marriage was primarily about having children and maintaining the household rather than about a romantic bond between two individuals attracted to each other (see Borovoy 2005). Therefore, it makes sense that despite his unkind comment, Mrs. Noda still made positive comments about her husband:

I am not sure exactly why, but my husband decided to go to Manchuria to test his luck when he was young. Once established, he was planning to get married and take his new bride to Manchuria. However, the russians captured him. He got to know another Japanese man while he was captive. When my husband was finally released, he offered to go to his acquaintance's home in Kanagawa Prefecture and tell the family that their son was alive. The family had a large, prosperous business, and to thank my husband for delivering the great news, the family offered him a job. But my husband turned it down, saying that his wife-to-be was waiting for him and he had to return to her. When i heard this story, i thought it was really nice that he came back to his wife rather than focusing on his career.

Thus Mrs. Noda praised her husband's character; he had kept his word and returned to his spouse.

When her husband grew old and ill, Mrs. Noda cared for him. She bought special elder-care equipment in order to keep him at home. She said, “i used to bathe my husband. I remember that he really loved it.” When her husband's condition worsened, he was hospitalized, and, as noted, she moved temporarily to her stepson's house to commute to the hospital every day. When her husband passed away, she was depressed for a while. Sixteen years after her husband's death, however, she feels happy with her life once more. She told me, “i did not think that i would ever feel that way or that i would be able to enjoy late adulthood.”

In fact, Mrs. Noda feels that now is the best time of her life. She survived world war ii, overcame her long-term illness, raised her stepchildren and married them off, and took care of her husband and sent him off to the world of the dead. Now that her duties as a married woman had been fulfilled, she had her remaining life to enjoy. She was financially self-sufficient, as she had a pension. She told me, “in my parents' generation, it was taken for granted that adult children would care for their parents. Yet the society has changed, and one does not need to depend on children any more. It is so much better now.”

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