At new Chiba facility for seniors, residents find a new purpose

In a three-story building in Chiba that looks like a posh apartment complex, various people come and go — seniors and young people, moms enjoying a lunch with friends, and children coming in to shop for snacks — it’s become an important place in their daily lives.

In May 2019, this assisted living facility opened in a residential area in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, offering single and double rooms for as many as 63 tenants, mainly those over 60 who are unable physically or mentally to live on their own.

But unlike other similar facilities, Ginmokusei Funabashi Natsumi has shops on the ground floor, including a restaurant, that nonresidents can patronize.

At the restaurant, Mieko Takeishi, 81, (not her real name), gallantly — though not speedily — waits on customers along with other staff young enough to be her grandchildren.

The restaurant, Koisuru Buta Kenkyujo, or Koibuta for short, offers pork-based fare. It’s a franchise of a popular chain in Chiba operated by a group keen on hiring people with disabilities.

As a Ginmokusei resident, Takeishi works there three times a week for ¥930 an hour on the days she’s not going to day care.

Takeishi, who worked in the past as a cook at a nursing facility, works about five hours a day, starting at 9:30 a.m. to clean the restaurant and help out with the cooking. She waits on tables during lunch.

“She is fantastic with the knives,” said manager Kyo Inamura, 24.

Takeishi, who at first had wanted to go back to the home she used to live in, appears to have found a new calling.

“It’s fun to welcome customers at the restaurant. I’m looking forward to my next day at work” she said with a shy smile.

Several other residents also work behind the scenes at the restaurant.

Tadamichi Shimogawara, 48, president of Silver Wood Corp., which runs two group homes and 10 other nursing facilities under the Ginmokusei brand in Chiba and elsewhere, believes seniors live a better life if they have a role in society, which is why he started offering jobs to the residents.

He came up with the idea after many residents who had too much time to kill repeatedly asked Shimogawara to give them something to do. But having them help out with cleaning and other simple tasks wasn’t enough.

Therefore, Shimogawara thought paid jobs would give them a greater sense of responsibility.

“Meeting up with other people gives them a chance to communicate and feel tied to society, not just for the sake of earning money. It’s also good for them to move around on a regular basis,” he said.

A resident of Ginmokusei Funabashi Natsumi, an assisted living facility in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, chats with children who have dropped by to buy snacks at a store inside. | KYODOA resident of Ginmokusei Funabashi Natsumi, an assisted living facility in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, chats with children who have dropped by to buy snacks at a store inside. | KYODO

Inamura, the restaurant manager, was a bit worried at first about hiring the seniors.

“But I thought that even if they make mistakes, it’s our job to support them,” Inamura said. “First and foremost, we wanted to let them do what they wanted.”

After graduating from a university well-versed in social welfare, Inamura joined the company after working as a care giver. It was because of those skills that Inamura was chosen for the restaurant job.

Takeishi sometimes looks a bit lost when attending to many customers at once during the restaurant’s busiest hours, but the staff keep watch and lend support where needed. Even though there may be shortcomings in Takeishi’s work, the staff try not to make the senior feel uncomfortable. That’s the policy for hiring residents at the care facility.

After 3 p.m., Ginmokusei’s dining room and lobby become noisy as elementary school students come in one by one after school. Many like to buy the snacks costing ¥10 to ¥50 from its snack shop. Residents at the facility who volunteer take turns looking after the portable safe inside.

Though the residents occasionally get confused when calculating change for the purchases, the children check it for them. Arriving at their favorite seats and snacking on candy, girls chat with each other while doing kanji drills for homework. Faces pressed together, boys squeal at their latest victories in their video games.

The snack shop also attracts families with children.

“I come here quite often as it’s a good place to socialize,” said a young mother with a baby while her daughter munched on a snack beside her. An elderly woman glances at the three and talks about how she raised her children.

The operator of Ginmokusei are hopeful the building will become the “third place” in the community; for children, a place away from school and home; for adults, a place where they can casually drop by.

Ginmokusei also hosts events and festivals open to attendance by all in the area.

“I hope these facilities, which enable seniors to build social connections, will help change the negative perception associated with moving into an assisted living facility,” Shimogawara said, adding that these homes provide comfort for both residents and their family members.

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