Toddlers 'hired' in Japanese nursing home to tackle loneliness

The pitter-patter of tiny feet and giggles are sounds frequently heard at one Japanese nursing home.

These are the baby workers of Ichoan Nursing Home in the city of Kitakyushu "hired" to brighten up the days of its elderly residents, whose own grandchildren rarely visit.

One of the toddlers who brings joy to some of the 100 residents at the home is 18-month-old Rena Shinohara.

Once a week, she totters through the building's doors with a smile on her face which is reflected on those of the residents on wheelchairs and walkers.

Speaking to NBC News, Tatsuo Ojiro, 93, whose grandkids are seldom around, said: "It energises me to see the [toddlers], so this really helps me".

Another resident, Atsuko Okamura said: "When they come, they're so cute."

The infants' presence is meant to ease the feeling of isolation prevalent with ageing, especially in Japan, where a third of the population is over 65.

Loneliness is a growing problem in the country as some 40% of people said they felt lonely at least occasionally, according to a Japanese government survey conducted in 2022.

In 2021, its government appointed its first "minister of loneliness," charged with helping people of all ages connect, especially after the COVID pandemic.

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The nursing home's director, Kimie Gondo, came up with the idea of baby workers three years ago when her own newborn granddaughter was visiting and she saw how happy it made the residents.

Ms Gondo said: "When I saw the elderly people smile, I realised the power possessed by infants.

"Just by seeing a baby walking around, they smile and they start to speak."

The nursing home now has around 70 baby workers, who are rewarded after their shifts with nappies and ice cream.

Residents are 'great life teachers'

Rena's mother, Kanae Shinohara said: "It's funny, I'm not working but Rena has a job."

The family moved to the prefecture on Japan's Kyushu Island over a year ago, and to meet new people, Rena's mum brought her to the nursing home.

"Here she gets to interact with kids her age and also with grandfathers and grandmothers who are a bit more difficult to come across," said Ms Shinohara, who called the nursing home residents "great life teachers".

Rena and her small colleagues work flexible hours but they don't have long in the business - having to retire before the age of three.

'Words are unncessary'

A key recruitment criterion for Ms Gondo is that the toddlers don't speak.

That's because older people can struggle to speak and communicate, Gondo said, especially if they have cognitive impairment.

"In order to communicate on the same level, words are unnecessary," she said.

For nursing home residents, Gondo said, the visits from toddlers evoke the common Japanese experience of family members from multiple generations living under the same roof.

"Even if they enter a facility like this, they should be able to interact with people from various age groups on a daily basis," she said. "I think that's only natural."