Don't Fall

Every two months the neighbourhood comes together to work as a team on cleaning up the neighbourhood. We sweep out the gutters at the side of the road, remove weeds from various places, and ensure that the community is generally nice to look at. While this might sound like a great deal of work, we're generally done in half an hour then free to go about our regular Sunday business. Today's cleanup had the added benefit of being attended by the neighbourhood leader for the year1, who has been absent the last 10 months, leaving the bulk of the community management to his wife. As this was his first – and final – cleanup for the year, he started the day with a bit of a talk.

Japan is a country with an ageing population. The median age of people living in the immediate neighbourhood is 63, with only four people under the age of 18 being part of that number. Most of the neighbours that I interact with on a regular basis are in their 70s and 80s. As such, the people around me have a very different set of concerns, which is what today's talk was about. Although the leader was speaking to everyone, he was looking specifically at me for a good portion of his speech.

Good morning everyone. A long time has passed since I could help you with the cleaning. I think it was almost two years ago, when Yamaguchi-san was the leader, that I could lift a broom. As you can see, I don't go very far anymore. This walker is too cumbersome, and I'm too tired2. But before Oguchi-san takes over the leadership role next month, I wanted to remind all of you the importance of regular exercise. It was two years ago when I fell in the kitchen and broke my leg. Since that time my life has completely changed. I can't drive. I can't take a bath by myself. I can't visit friends who live far away. I had to give up most of my hobbies. And my weekdays went from being mine to being spent at day service, with nurses and coaches helping me to maintain some muscle. All I wanted to do was change a lightbulb, and the rest of my life changed because I fell.

Don't fall.

We're all getting older. Even you, Irwin-san. You're how old now? 40? Enjoy it. When you get to our age you'll wonder why you didn't appreciate the health you have now.

Most of us have known each other for over fifty years. We've watched as new children came into the world, grew up, and left to start families of their own. A lot of you are still in good shape, but a little accident in the house can do the same thing to you as it did to me. Suzuki-san down the street tripped on a single step last year, and she's been in a care home ever since. So don't fall.

This summer I'll be moving to a care home as well. My wife will stay in the house here. She's as healthy now as she's ever been. Just look at how beautiful and strong she is. But I don't want to be a burden. Takeshi3 will be buying the empty house down the street and building a new home there in a few months so that he's closer to home. He'll be able to help out with the neighbourhood responsibilities again in my place. He's about the same age as you, Irwin-san. You should meet him … when he's not looking at his damned phone.

I'll stop talking, but I just want to say again: don't fall. At our age, it will literally be the last thing you ever do.

When elders speak like this, it's interesting how closely people pay attention. There was certainly some laughter at points in the talk, but everyone knew exactly what he was saying. I cannot imagine being close to 90 years of age, and I cannot imagine being incapacitated for the rest of my life due to an injury in the house that doesn't involve a harpoon impaling a part of my body. Being reminded of just how fleeting good health might be is certainly good for a bit of a perspective check. As it stands, the worst thing I have to deal with is allergies, which is a 5-week period of discomfort. Some of my neighbours, however, have to deal with a great deal more.

  1. Every year there is a house in the neighbourhood that takes on the responsibility of leader. Generally, it's the husband who performs this role not out of patriarchal governance, but because the women of the area already have enough to do with the various events that are coordinated with surrounding neighbourhoods throughout the year. There is no rule anywhere saying that a role must be performed by a man or a woman and, indeed, you will see a mix of genders at every type of meeting.

  2. When someone around here in their 80s say they're "too tired", it usually means they're in too much pain.

  3. Takeshi is his son.