In a Japanese nursing home, some of the workers are infants

TOKYO – Giggling, giggling and tiny feet mingle with the sounds of walkers and wheelchairs at a nursing home in southern Japan. In this gray country, one house has recruited an unusual class of workers to liven up the days of its inhabitants.

These are “child workers,” as the head of the nursing home calls them: 32 children so far, all under the age of four, are staying with its residents, most of whom are in their 80s. Residents strike up conversations with young maids. The babies, accompanied by their parents or guardians (usually the mother), give the residents hugs.

Visitors’ rewards? Free diapers, baby formula, baby photography and coupons for a nearby cafe.

The facility, Ichoan Nursing Home, is in Kitakyushu, a city of 940,000 people in Fukuoka Prefecture. aging and shrinking like the rest of Japan. As families became smaller and older people isolated, the nursing home’s infant care worker program helped people connect between generations.

Kyoko Nakano, 85, who has lived at the nursing home for more than a year, said: “I don’t get to see my grandchildren very often, so the babysitters are a great treat. While she enjoys knitting and watching TV, she says she drops everything to spend time with babies and toddlers when they arrive.

“They are so cute, and they make the whole place brighter,” said Ms. Nakano. “Young energy is different.”

As Japan’s population ages, the use of nursing homes has increased rapidly. According to the Japanese government, the number in such homes has more than doubled, to 1.8 million people between 2005 and 2020. There, life can be lonely and dull, but at the Nursing Home old Ichoan, residents say that babies bring energy and light.

Studies have linked social interaction to less loneliness, slower mental decline, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of illness and death in older adults. Intergenerational communication has also been shown to attract older people, making them smile and talk more. For children, these intergenerational interactions have been shown to enhance social and personal development.

The concept of allowing nursing home residents to interact with children is not new. In Seattle, residents of Mount Providence St. Vincent have shared their facility with a program that cares for babies up to 5 years old since 1991.

Of Ichoan’s 120 residents, the oldest is 101, said Kimie Gondo, 58, the director of the nursing home. The youngest worker was only 2 months old and could barely raise her head.

Ms Gondo said she was inspired to start the program last year when she took her newborn granddaughter to work and saw how residents smiled and played with her. “I thought it was selfish to just let my niece enjoy this special time,” she said, “so we decided to extend it to any baby who wants to come do the same.”

Expectations are becoming lax for small travelers, as it can be difficult for them to achieve. Toddlers are asked to walk around the nursing home and socialize with residents, and parents help the babies with circulation. “Nothing is required,” said Miss Gondo. “The kids decide when they arrive and how long they want to stay.”

Parents in Ichoan, whose children are mostly too young for school or day care, say the nursing home has given their children a rare opportunity to safely socialize at a time of risk. The risk of Covid causes many families to worry. They said they were confident the nursing home had taken appropriate precautions against transmission of the virus to protect its vulnerable residents.

One mother, Mika Shintani, 31, said she signed up for her daughter because she wanted her daughter to meet people outside of her immediate family. She also said she feels more comfortable taking her children to a nursing home than going to the park or a friend’s house. “My daughter spends most of the day just interacting with me,” she said, “so I thought it would be good for her to see other faces.”

Ms. Gondo said she has yet to see a father with a baby in Ichoan. Men in Japan work fewer hours housework and childcare than any other rich country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

On her daughter’s first day, Shintani said, she was 5 months old and cried when she arrived at the facility in her stroller. But she quickly warmed up to the people and started laughing and playing with the women there, so they started going every two weeks.

The show’s perks aren’t just tangible things, like diapers and formula, she says: “On the days my daughter works hard, I don’t have to cook lunch!”

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