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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 1997
Serving the aged has a silver lining
By YOKO HANI
As Japan's society continues to age at an unprecedented rate, companies from a variety of fields are looking into the area of welfare for new business opportunities.
So far, the task of looking after the elderly has been left mainly to families, with women bearing most of the responsibility, and public services have been limited. However, the expected introduction of a public nursing care insurance system for the elderly will help accelerate the growth of the welfare business, because it is based on improving care services.
A public nursing care bill was approved by the Lower House in the last Diet session and is currently pending in the Upper House. First, however, companies that have become involved in the welfare business say they must develop high-quality services before seeking to make a profit. Such companies range from security firms to those involved in the education sector, and they consider "silver services" a legitimate part of their work.
Secom Co., a major security company, started a home helper dispatch service two years ago, an extension of its home medical care service. "As a security company, we are trying to offer services to give people a safe and comfortable life. Health and medical services are among those," said Minoru Yasuda, a spokesman for Secom.
The firm has about 466,000 customers nationwide who use Secom's security service, and this network will be helpful in establishing the company's new welfare services, he said. At present, the company has about 250 people registered as home helpers and about 80 customers are using the service, he said.
Osaka-based Matsushita Electric Works, Ltd., a leading manufacturer of building materials and lighting equipment, will open a nursing home for senior citizens next July in Kadoma, Osaka Prefecture. The nursing home, a four-story building with 80 private rooms, will have a rehabilitation room and day-care services, according to Tomio Kado, a company spokesman.
"We have manufactured barrier-free interior equipment such as step-less bathrooms and home elevators, but this is the first major project in the silver business field," Kado said, adding that the new nursing home will incorporate such equipment. Because the company started the project as a business, it naturally wants to avoid suffering financial losses, Kado said. "But at the same time, we are not trying to pursue a profit aggressively," he added.
Through its project, the company hopes to gain a better understanding of what type of products senior citizens really need in their everyday lives and make use of the findings to develop new goods and services, he said. From the education sector, Benesse Corp., known for its correspondence system for students preparing for entrance examinations, started a home helper training program in 1993, in accordance with guidelines authorized by the Health and Welfare Ministry. About 2,500 people have completed the program, which qualifies them to work as home helpers, according to Mitsuru Kanzaki, a spokesman for the company. "This business may seem different from our original field, but we believe welfare is related to education and culture, to which we have devoted ourselves," he said.
He said it is premature to talk about whether the company can make a profit from the new field. "What we have to do now is think about how we can establish the business to give customers satisfactory services," he said.