Kodokushi may be a new word for most readers, but sadly the concept it names, is going to be familiar to many. Kodokushi is Japanese for “lonely death” and it refers to the growing phenomenon of people dying alone, and remaining undiscovered for a long period of time.
Statistics on this sad end to a life are understandably incomplete. The most recent figure I could find for Japan was 32,000 “lonely deaths” in 2009. It’s likely about 40,000 now given that the percentage of the Japanese population over 65 has increased from 23% to 27%. Of course this isn’t a uniquely Japanese problem. The Japanese culture of gaman: “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity” perhaps makes it more common but we know it’s happening everywhere. We know it’s a particular problem for men even though women are more likely to report feeling lonely – and that’s perhaps part of the problem for men – they won’t admit their loneliness and need for companionship, and aren’t as adept at creating mutually supporting networks.
The Campaign to End Loneliness has some good statistics on this problem, for example, in the UK over half (51%) of all people aged 75 and over live alone (ONS, 2010). Loneliness isn’t just about the mental anguish, it’s also strongly correlated with poor health outcomes: loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%.
It’s a hard problem to crack though: people lead busy lives, children often live far from the parental home, older people often have limited mobility or have to give up driving. Kraydel on its own can’t solve this problem. We believe making video calls simple with high quality audio and video could be an important part of a solution but ultimately it’s only when people make time to spend with the elders in their family and communities, that we can reduce those feelings of isolation and worthlessness. My eldest son is at University 600 miles from home; we’re on a video call with him 2 or 3 times a week. I find it chilling to think how it was for parents in our position only 30 years ago when maintaining a connection with a son or daughter at Uni relied on them queuing up on the street to use a phone-box for 3 minutes once a week. Technology is keeping us close, and will continue to do so as he continues his life in another part of the world. My mother is only a few miles away and yet achieving the same level of intimacy with her is much harder, and will continue to be hard for a few more weeks until our first batch of Kraydel devices is ready for trial.
It perhaps sounds morbid, but for us, the successful outcome of a Kraydel deployment, is that at some point the device reports that everything has gone quiet and there may be a problem. And on this occasion it’s because the person it was looking out for, has passed on. But the point is not that they died, but that they lived out their life in their own home, and on their own terms, and when they died, it didn’t go unnoticed – we made it known, and someone who cared was on the scene quickly. It’s what everyone deserves.