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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Caregiving Tragedy

Aug. 3, 2016

Many family members in Japan must act as caregivers for their elders as the population ages. But that has led to a spate of “caregiver murders.”

We've collected information on these cases and found that, including attempted murders, there have been 138 such incidents in the past 6 years. That averages out to 1 almost every 2 weeks.

What has pushed so many to do the unthinkable? At the request of those who agreed to share their stories, we've concealed their identities for privacy.

We obtained special permission to go inside a prison and speak with a man behind one of these incidents. He's now serving an 8-year sentence.

"I took my mother’s life. She had been diagnosed with dementia. I have so much regret for ending the life of my own mother, the person who gave life to me," the man says.

His mother's severe dementia meant she couldn’t be left unattended for a moment. For a while, the man's older brother took care of her. He would spend his days at work while his mother was at a care center. In the evenings, he would go home and attend to her until morning. His life came to revolve around her.

"I began to worry about myself; caring for her was exhausting me. I couldn’t sleep at night, but still I had to go to work," the man's older brother says.

He started to see the limits of his ability to both work and attend to his mother. He decided to turn the burden over to his younger brother since the brother was unemployed at the time. He now regrets that decision.

The younger brother had not been home in 25 years. When he saw his mother, he was shocked at the state she was in.

"She couldn’t understand what I was saying, and I couldn’t understand what she was saying. It wasn’t Japanese; she would just say loud words that I couldn’t get. I thought of her as a monster in my mother’s skin,” the man says.

Being unemployed made him feel that he was the only one in the family who could take care of her.

“I didn’t have anywhere to escape to. A few days before the murder, my mother came out of the bathroom with her pajamas, towels, everything covered in her own feces. There was so much, I couldn’t imagine how she did it. She came to me crying, asking, ‘Did I do something wrong?' That’s when I realized that my mother was the one who was suffering the most, and I felt sorry for her. After that, I felt I was the only person who could give her any comfort. Two or 3 days later, I committed my crime. That's all there is,” the man says.

He now spends his days in his jail cell, praying for his mother. Three hundred and eighty-eight people who are or were caregivers responded to a questionnaire we gave. We asked if they had ever thought about taking the life of the person they cared for, or if they had ever wanted to die with them.

To our surprise, 24 percent of respondents answered “yes” or “sometimes,” meaning that one in 4 had had experienced these sentiments.

"One time after my mother started to scream in the middle of the night, I put a pillow over her face, thinking it would be easier if she just died,” wrote one respondent in her 60s.

"I felt hopeless. I couldn’t see an end to it, and it was even worse when I thought about my future. I started to think about suicide, of killing my mother and myself," wrote 51-year-old Takashi Hasegawa.

Hasegawa's mother suffers from dementia. He has been living with her and caring for her for 11 years. His wife used to be the one who attended to her.

But they eventually got a divorce, and Hasegawa was left to do it by himself. Hasegawa had no choice but to leave his job. The 2 now live on his mother’s pension.

When she was at the daycare center, Hasegawa shared his darkest feelings.

"Being a caregiver almost feels like being in jail. Right now, I just feel like some kind of caregiving robot, as if the sole purpose of my existence is to take care of my mother,” Hasegawa said in an interview.

Hasegawa shared one incident he has never told anyone about. Five years ago, his mother suffered a type of stroke and fell unconscious. Hasegawa says that for a moment, he hesitated to call an ambulance.

"I just stared blankly at my mother on the floor, just looking, staring. I thought that if she just stayed like that and passed away, I wouldn't have to take care of her. I could finally be free. And I think I felt there was no other way to get out of it," Hasegawa says.

He now deeply regrets not instantly helping his mother. He says that caregiver murders must not be forgiven. But still, he says he cannot unilaterally condemn those who committed this crime to escape their situation.

"I can't help but want to say to those who did it 'Now your job as a caregiver is over and you've done enough.’ Their crime can never be forgiven and they must pay the price, go to prison and everything," Hasegawa says. "But still, I just feel this need to say to them that now their task is done."

NHK World's Marisa Okada joins anchors Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in the studio.

Beppu: Well Marisa, children taking care of their parents is generally considered a beautiful tradition here in Japan. But seeing the story, it reveals that it's a system that doesn't work for everyone. In fact, I think we're seeing a new reality of our aging society.

Okada: Yes, and it's ironic that it's this virtue that's causing the problem. Nursing care has mainly been considered a problem for those receiving the care. But our findings show it can also be a problem for those giving the care, including family members. Many of them are in fact facing an extremely tough situation.

Shibuya: The report showed the shocking results of a questionnaire. It revealed that 1 out of 4 respondents had felt like taking the life of the person they cared for. How do the hardships of providing nursing care push people over the edge?

Okada: We found out that many of these murders or attempted murders happened within a year after the person started providing care for the victim. Caregivers’ lives change drastically when they undertake this task. Some have to quit their jobs, putting their economic future in doubt. Some cannot go to sleep because they have to give care. All of these things combine to make them physically and mentally unstable. Some of those surveyed said they lost hope because they didn't know how to do the work, and they didn't know who to ask for help.

Beppu: Do you mean that the caregivers suddenly face a new reality, and that causes them more stress, that they have to adapt to a new situation?

Okada: That's right. And the earlier it is, the more caregivers suffer. They have vivid memories of how the person they're caring for used to be when they were healthy. This can lead to depression and difficulty accepting this change in their loved one. All of these factors are thought to combine and make people feel like they've run out of options.

Shibuya: What can be done to limit these dangers?

Okada: We need to create support systems to help ease caregivers’ stress. We also need to create opportunities for caregivers to freely share their concerns and worries with others.

Beppu: What are the measures taken by the Japanese government to alleviate these kinds of problems?

Okada: Japanese government officials announced a plan to initiate a system of home visits by nurses, and these visits will allow them to consult with the caregivers. They say it's important to create an environment in which local communities can support families struggling to provide care.

Beppu: Well we can't stress more that killing for whatever reason can never be justified. But if we keep on dumping the responsibility of taking care of family members only onto other family members, unfortunately these tragedies could be repeated.

Okada: The government has long focused its policies on those receiving care. But our findings revealed that we need more measures focused on the people providing care. The burden of nursing care shouldn't be imposed on families alone. And I think the challenge of easing this burden is one facing not only Japan, but many other countries with aging societies.