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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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A New Model of Aged Care

Mar. 4, 2016

As Japan's population ages, one young man is trying a different way to help seniors by opening a private home as a care center.

Elderly people from the neighborhood visit the residence, which is located in the city of Kofu, in the foothills of Mt Fuji.

They can relax there -- like being at home. Staff members look after them from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., providing meals, help with bathing, and a sense of community.

The 2014 census showed that one in 4 Japanese is over 65. Many people now look after an elderly relative at home, or put them in care centers that are large, and that provide a standardized routine every day.

Against this backdrop has emerged a new style of care -- adult daycare centers that offer part-time nursing.

Naoya Horiuchi, 26, opened Mitsubaya Aged Care last December. His wife and a college friend also work there. All three of them are in their twenties, and all are experienced caregivers.

Horiuchi's daughter Yuiko also plays an important role, since interacting with children can provide positive stimulus for the elderly.

Horiuchi wants to create an environment where staff and clients spend time like family.

Clients who know how to cook sometimes help prepare lunch. They're encouraged to work and move as much as their strength allows because physical activity helps people stay alert.

"We encourage them to work if they’re up to it," Horiuchi says. "Of course, we have to be extremely careful about hygiene when we prepare meals. But we want to share responsibilities and develop relationships, rather than just focus on eliminating risks, which is easy to do."

The home has no strict schedules or rules.

Horiuchi says what's important is to create a space for the elderly to spend time at their own pace.

His interest in social welfare comes from childhood experience. His parents divorced and his father left home when he was 4 years old.

"I realized it may not be true that children are loved unconditionally," Horiuchi says. "When my father left us, I felt I was not particularly needed."

The family ran into financial problems around the time he started elementary school. They often ran out of money for food, so neighbors and teachers helped them out.

After high school he studied welfare in college. He met someone who ran a nursing facility in a private house. The idea was to treat each person according to his or her needs. Horiuchi dreamed of starting such a home.

"I feel it’s my turn to help people who are troubled or sad, just as people helped me when I was young," Horiuchi says.

A month and a half after opening the home, Horiuchi's clients are slowly increasing. But he's yet to make a profit. And though he hopes to get 10 clients a day, there’s a limit to how many the small team can handle.

He gets a subsidy from nursing-care insurance. For every user, the home receives about $90 per day.

The team is extremely busy each morning. To make ends meet, Horiuchi also works night shifts at a convenience store.

"I sometimes think you're going to pass out. You're as thin as a rail," his wife, Saika, tells him.

One of the facility's clients is Makoto Mochizuki, who was president of a construction firm before he retired.

The elderly man's family asked Horiuchi to look after him, but on his first day there he has trouble settling in.

“I don’t blame him ― he’s suddenly been put among a lot of people he hardly knows," Horiuchi says. "He hasn’t found his place yet."

On his second visit, Mochizuki won’t even set foot inside the house. He says he wants to leave, and Horiuchi says that's okay. They go for a drive and Mochizuki directs Horiuchi to where his old house once stood.

At a stop in the road they encounter a construction worker who says he knows Mochizuki, and the encounter seems to change his mood completely.

They head back to the home and Mochizuki is happy to enter. He eats at the table. After his meal, he takes a long nap, sits with the others, and even enjoys a bath.

"When you’re dealing with so many different people, anything can happen,” Horiuchi says.

Little by little, Horiuchi is learning how to provide the best aged care he can.

“I want to create a facility where people are respected and engaged. That way I’m sure they'll want to come back tomorrow, and maybe they will even feel like living a bit longer,” he says.

Horiuchi hopes someday homes like his will be part of every neighborhood, just like daycare centers. He also hopes they will also care for young children and people with disabilities.

But many young caregivers like Horiuchi aren't making a big profit, posing a problem for the industry.

The government is studying ways to expand the workforce in aged care. Many people say conditions for caregivers -- including those from overseas -- need to improve.