Originating in Japan, this refreshing, integrative approach promotes an essential shift in societal perceptions on aging.
Our society has an unfortunate tendency to discount the experience and wisdom of people as they grow older. All too often, older people — especially those with dementia — are seen as people who need to be taken care of, rather than vital citizens who have plenty to contribute and share with those around them. A new approach that’s emerging in Asia flips that narrative by positioning seniors, including those with dementia, as leaders in their local communities.
Dr. Emi Kiyota
According to Dr. Emi Kiyota, the people in our population with the greatest breadth of lived experience should not only be honoured, but also regarded as important resources.
An environmental gerontologist originally from Japan and now based in Washington, DC, Kiyota is an expert in the design of hospitals and care facilities.
She works as a consultant for many organizations, but one of her most noteworthy accomplishments is the creation of Ibasho, a not-for-profit international organization that helps to better integrate elders into their respective communities around the world.
“Older people want to be useful to others,” Kiyota says. “But no one was really doing anything to facilitate that. I grew up in Japan, where there is a strong community connection to elder care. When I moved to the US, I became a bit disoriented because aging is treated like a biomedical issue in North America.”
Ibasho is a Japanese word that translates to “a place where you can feel like yourself,” and the concept is less about structured programming than a shift in societal perceptions about the value of older people.
The first Ibasho centre came about in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which displaced people of all ages and required an immense amount of community-building as populations repaired themselves. The disaster also highlighted the importance and value of elders as they helped younger people to survive and rebuild.
To continue this cross-generational momentum — and buoyed with help from Operation USA, Honeywell Hokkaido University, and members of the local community — Kiyota founded Ibasho House in the city of Ofunato as a place for people of all ages to gather and interact.
Ibasho is not a residential care facility or a senior’s centre. It’s also not a traditional community centre or mentorship program. The original Ibasho House in Japan started as a community café and has since grown to include a ramen shop, organic farmer’s market, day care, and multi-use spaces.
It looks unlike the kind of seniors’ programming that many of us are used to seeing in North America in that there isn’t scheduled programming or seminars and classes.
“Everyone who spends time at Ibasho learns to encourage people with dementia to find some way to contribute."
– Dr. Emi Kiyota
A typical day at Ibasho consists of people spending time together: kids may be playing video games or joking around with each other while adults of all ages enjoy tea, play games or cook together.
Part of the beauty of Ibasho is that everything is organized and overseen by the elders themselves (there are no official care staff on-site), giving them a chance to contribute and show that they are still integral to the health of the community even if they have dementia or other age-related health issues.
“The elders actually decide how to run the place — but we’re very clear that we are not running a grandma café for grandmas,” Kiyota says. “We wanted to create an environment of normalcy. It’s about creating a space where people can do what they want to do without programming anything too heavily. It’s a very normal way of interacting.”
As for people with dementia, Ibasho welcomes them just as it would anyone else, without any segregated programming. Just like Ibasho House doesn’t force seniors and youth into a buddy-style program, there’s no memory café or support group programming for those with dementia or their caregivers. They simply come in, either with their caregivers or on their own, and enjoy themselves with the rest of their friends and neighbours. There’s no pressure to talk about their dementia or dwell on their illness — Ibasho simply gives those with dementia a place to connect with other people and to feel like they can be of use, bolstering their sense of self-worth and adding some structure to their day.
Image courtesy of Ibasho - Japan.
“These people are profoundly bright and experienced and very wise. People just don’t expect older people to contribute to the community and that system needs to change."
– Dr. Emi Kiyota
“Everyone who spends time at Ibasho learns to encourage people with dementia to find some way to contribute,” Kiyota says. “If they’re drinking tea, someone will always encourage the person with dementia to clean up their own cups or give them something useful to
Photo Courtesy of Ibasho - Philippines.
do. Sometimes they’ll cook. Everyone is integrated. There isn’t special programming for people with dementia because wedon’t want to create any stigma.”
Since the Japanese Ibasho House opened in 2013, similar projects have been launched in Nepal and the Philippines, with everything being run exclusively by the elders in each locale. Kiyota hopes to extend the concept by working with groups in North America but needs communities to lead the way and adopt Ibasho centres themselves to make the concept work.
The philosophy and resulting centres can benefit not only older people who want to maintain autonomy and self-confidence, but also younger people who may not otherwise have many elders in their lives.
“We don’t have a system where older people could be a resource in the community,” Kiyota says. “These people are profoundly bright and experienced and very wise. People just don’t expect older people to contribute to the community and that system needs to change.”