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In a Japan nursing home, babies are put to work

TOKYO >> Cooing, giggling and the patter of tiny feet mix with the sound of walkers and wheelchairs at a nursing home in southern Japan. In this graying nation, one home has been recruiting an unusual class of workers to enliven its residents’ days.

These are “baby workers,” as the head of the nursing home calls them: 32 children so far, all younger than 4 years old, who spend time with its residents, mostly in their 80s. Residents strike up conversations with the youngsters. The babies, accompanied by a parent or guardian, offer up hugs.

Their pay? Diapers, baby formula, free baby photo shoots and coupons for a nearby cafe.

The facility, Ichoan Nursing Home, is in Kitakyushu, a city of 940,000 in Fukuoka prefecture that is aging and shrinking like the rest of Japan. As older people have become more isolated, the nursing home’s program has helped people connect across generations.

“I don’t get to see my grandkids very often, so the baby workers are a great treat,” said Kyoko Nakano, 85, who has lived at the home for over a year.

While she enjoys knitting and watching TV, she said she drops everything to spend time with the children.

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

As Japan’s population has aged, nursing home numbers have grown rapidly. Between 2005 and 2020, those numbers have more than doubled, to 1.8 million, according to government records.

For seniors, studies have linked social interaction with delayed mental decline, lower blood pressure and reduced risk of disease and death. Socializing across generations has been shown to draw older people out, making them smile and converse more. For children, intergenerational interactions can enhance social and personal development.

Pairing nursing home residents with children is not new. In Seattle, residents of Providence Mount St. Vincent have shared their facility with a child care program for newborns to 5-year-olds since 1991.

Among Ichoan’s 120 residents, the oldest is 101, said Kimie Gondo, 58, the home’s director. The youngest baby worker, at 2 months old, can barely hold his head up.

Gondo said she was inspired to start the program last year when she took her newborn granddaughter to work and saw how she perked up the residents.

“I thought it was selfish to only have my granddaughter enjoy this special time,” she said, “so we decided to open it up to any baby who wanted to come do the same work.”

Rules are flexible for the little visitors. Toddlers circulate through the nursing home and spend time with residents.

“Nothing is mandatory,” Gondo said. “The babies decide when they come and for how long they want to stay.”

Parents at Ichoan, whose children are mostly too small for school or day care, said the home gives their tots a rare opportunity to socialize safely at a time when COVID-19 risks have kept many families cooped up. They trust the nursing home to protect against virus transmission.

One mother, Mika Shintani, 31, said she signed up her daughter because she wanted her to interact with people beyond her immediate family. Shintani felt more comfortable taking her baby to the nursing home than to a park or a friend’s home.

“My daughter was spending the majority of her days only interacting with me,” she said, “so I thought seeing other faces would be good for her.”

On their first day, Shintani said, her daughter was 5 months old and cried when she arrived at the home. But she quickly warmed up to the residents, laughing and playing with the women there, so they began visiting twice a month.

The perks of the program are not just the obvious ones, like diapers and formula, Shintani said: “On the days my daughter is hard at work, I don’t have to cook lunch!”

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