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When Loneliness Makes Elders Steal
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Aug 6th 2013
If I told you that Japan is seeing a surge in older shoplifters, what would you think? You might assume that the culprits have dementia and aren't stealing food and merchandise on purpose. But sadly, Japan's recent social ill goes much deeper than this.
In a recent Chicago Tribune article, I learned that the crime rate among older adults in Japan doubled in the last decade. Doubled! The crime rate among older Japanese citizens is now higher than it is for the country's juveniles. Shoplifting accounts for almost sixty percent of criminal offenses among older Japanese.
But these elders don't usually have Alzheimer's disease or another kind of dementia affecting their judgment. According to experts, there are both practical and emotional reasons driving crime among Japanese older adults.
On the practical side, there are more older Japanese people in poverty than ever before. While the number of Japanese elders is skyrocketing (retirees will make up one-third of the population by 2035), so is the national debt. Efforts to curb that debt have meant cuts to welfare programs that older Japanese people have traditionally relied on when they retired.
While this is concerning, it is not surprising. But the experts also elaborated on a startling emotional explanation for this disturbing surge in crime. They said that Japanese elders steal because they are lonely.
That's right - when Japanese people reach old age and retire, they aren't treated like contributing members of society anymore. They are often isolated, ignored, and treated as if they are no longer needed. Younger family members are less able or willing to care for their older relatives. Sadly, the elders respond by acting out. If no one is paying attention to them in the grocery store anymore, what difference does it make if they steal something? No one will notice, anyway.
This hurts my heart. Most Japanese elders who are shoplifting never stole a thing their entire lives - until they retired. I wonder how this could occur in Japan - a culture that historically revered its elders, cared for them in multigenerational households, and gave them significant roles in the family and community. What happened?
If such demoralization can occur in Japan, can it happen in the United States too? I fear it could. We share many of the same challenges that Japan is grappling with, such as a soaring national debt, a growing older population, and a shrinking availability of caregivers due to the economy and changing values about family and work. We also have a long way to go to overcome ageism. I can easily see our elders resorting to stealing not only to make ends meet, but also to try to prove that they still matter in some way.
My favorite TV show of all time is Northern Exposure. During one episode, Chris the DJ is caught stealing small electronics from several town residents. When his friend Ed asks him why he went on his burglary spree, Chris just looked at him wistfully and said, "Ed, sometimes you have to do something bad just to know you're alive."
Perhaps Chris was onto something when we consider the desperate hearts of elders who feel forgotten.
Nohara, Y., & Sharp, A. (July 26, 2013). Japan's elders turn to shoplifting. Chicago Tribune (Kindle edition).