Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Japanese citizens stepping up to serve as legal guardians of disabled or elderly people with no family

From Yomiuri Shimbun:

"Citizen guardians" are ordinary citizens who serve as legal guardians of adults who have no blood relatives or little income and, due to dementia or other reasons, require help with daily life.

These everyday people have no professional training in legal issues or social welfare, but look out for the physical and financial well-being of people to whom they are not related.

Ten years ago there were very few citizen guardians, but the number is rising. More people are living alone, family ties in general are weakening, and legal and welfare professionals are not always able or willing to help out. Some local governments are even running training programs for people willing to become citizen guardians.

One afternoon in the middle of September, Tomoe Hoshino, 38, visited a 66-year-old woman in a hospital in Utsunomiya. The woman's eyesight is nearly gone, and she is unable to eat or go out by herself. She has no relatives to take care of her.

"Hello. How are you feeling?" asked Hoshino. The woman replied, "Yeah, I'm all right."

Hoshino used to be the woman's nurse, and they developed a deep personal relationship. In December last year, upon the woman's request, Hoshino was appointed her citizen guardian by a local family court.

During her about one-hour visit, Hoshino chatted with the woman and read aloud to her. Hoshino gave the woman a pack of tissues and some cans of coffee she had bought on her behalf.

Hoshino visits the woman at least three times a month, and manages about 100,000 yen a month of her pension--the woman's only income--to pay her hospital fees and buy daily necessities.

Hoshino said, "I'm always thinking about how to make her life more comfortable, even by a little bit."

Citizen guardians' responsibilities are similar to those of any legal guardian--they manage their ward's assets, sign contracts on their behalf for nursing care and other services, and provide general assistance in their daily lives.

In 2000, 94.1 percent of people acting as legal guardian of an adult were that person's spouse, child or other blood relative. But with more people living alone and the weakening of family ties, that figure plunged to 63.5 percent as of 2009.

Increasingly, lawyers, judicial scriveners, social welfare counselors and other professionals are acting as legal guardians for adults, but there is a limit to how much they can or are willing to do.

Noriyuki Yagashira, senior director of Seinen Koken Center Legal Support, an association of judicial scriveners, said: "There's a limited number of professionals around, and their approach tends to be too businesslike. Ordinary citizens are more in touch, and can communicate in a more personable way."

A government welfare official said: "Professionals sometimes don't accept requests unless they can expect a certain level of reward. But an increasing number of people have no blood relatives and no assets. So there's a need for a new type of person who's willing to accept the role of guardian."

There are no official statistics, but it is estimated that nationwide there are about 100 to 200 people working practically full-time as citizen guardians of adults.

The city government of Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, in 2007 began a citizen guardian training program. After a written test and interviews, the participants--many of whom are retirees--attend at least 20 classes about guardianship and other welfare programs. They also receive practical training from supervisors who have worked as guardians of adults. In all, the training takes about 18 months.

An official of the city government's health and welfare division said: "[Guardian of an adult] is a difficult job. That amount of training is needed to confirm someone's suitability."

The governments of Osaka city and Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, provide similar training programs.

Koji Miyauchi is a guest associate professor of the Graduate School of Medicine at the University of Tokyo, which is implementing a citizen guardian training program in cooperation with the University of Tsukuba.

Miyauchi said: "Ordinary citizens are very well suited to being guardians. It's a big resource pool, and their perspective on life is close to the perspective of the people they'll be helping. We should take advantage of this and actively foster highly qualified guardians."