Fri, Apr 10, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Staffing Japan’s nursing homes with the jobless is no easy fix

By Isabel Reynolds  /  REUTERS , TOKYO

Changing an elderly person’s incontinence pants was one of the first challenges facing former air conditioning technician Naoya Kadohara when he switched to a job caring for elderly people several years ago.

“At first it was very difficult. I didn’t understand any of the terms people used. When I was told to change a diaper, I didn’t know what to do,” he said.

A similar shock could face many jobless Japanese if government efforts succeed in channeling some of the growing ranks of the unemployed into the gaps in the rapidly graying country’s understaffed nursing homes.

The reasoning behind the policy is obvious. One industry body estimates 400,000 contract workers will have been laid off in the six months to March 31, with manufacturing worst hit as exports dwindle in the global downturn.

But the nursing care sector in the world’s most rapidly graying country, already starved for workers, needs to add more than 120,000 people in the next two years.

Yet teaching auto workers and other manufacturing specialists geriatric care is easier said than done.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso has announced ¥2 trillion (US$19 billion) in funding to help secure jobs, much of which will be spent by local governments on funding career changes into elderly care.

“It’s a direct consequence, if you put two parts of an equation together, falling employment in manufacturing and a need for labor in the health-care sector,” said Martin Schultz, senior economist at the Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo. “The problem is the two don’t go together very well.”

Similar attempts to funnel workers from one sector to another in Europe have met with little success, he said.

Tokyo’s nursing care services are suffering acute staff shortages, with 3.24 openings for every applicant. A new city-run program will pay for basic training for would-be carers, and offers interest-free loans to help with career change expenses such as relocation and clothing. The loan will be waived if they stay in their jobs for six months.

Carer Kadohara was among a few dozen candidates seeking new posts or advice on careers at a nursing care careers event the city.

Many in Japan’s nursing sector point out that training in care techniques may not provide former factory workers with the emotional qualities needed to work with disabled elderly people.

“It’s not that hard, but if you don’t feel empathy with the elderly, it would be difficult to stay in this job,” said Takako Furuno, 26, who has worked for five years as a carer at a Tokyo residential home, a career she set her heart on in her teens.

“The residents would know if you weren’t sympathetic,” she said, after helping a group of elderly people with their afternoon snack of cake and coffee.

Differences in life expectancy mean the vast majority of residents in Japan’s nursing homes are female and many prefer carers of the same sex, reducing the number of vacancies for the mostly male former factory workers.

While residential homes are dubious about the government’s ideas, unions representing casual and contract workers are also unenthusiastic.

“The reason that a lot of people go into nursing care work and then leave very quickly is that working conditions are so bad,” said Makoto Kawazoe of Seinen Union. “The pay is extremely low and it is very hard work.”

Average basic pay for a care worker in a residential home is about ¥190,000 a month, compared with an average of ¥300,000 a month across all sectors.

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