By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER
“At first, I was skeptical about moving into an assisted living home, but I’m now happy with the personal care, activities, and delicious Japanese cuisine that I receive on a daily basis,” Kanichiro Tsutsui, 85, said.
Tsutsui decided last year to move into a Japanese-owned residential care home in Laguna Hills with his wife, Kazuko, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, after 12 years of being her caregiver in their home.
He praises the services offered in their new assisted living residence: “Skilled caregivers who understand omotenashi take care of my wife with respect. A great weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”
Aging and elder care are among the top issues that the Japanese American community is facing today. According to research conducted by the National Asian Pacific Center on Aging, 23 percent of the Japanese American population is now 65 or older, making it this country’s oldest ethnic group among Asians.
Choosing a place to reside in one’s later years depends on each person’s health, finances, and family, but since the mid 1990s, residential care facilities have received a lot of attention due to their cozy, private atmosphere, reminiscent of living independently in one’s own home. At the same time, demand is increasing for facilities that are sensitive to residents’ cultural backgrounds, dietary needs, and religious practices.
Over the past 20 years, Okinawa-born Maki Sigrist and her husband, Jim, have operated six assisted living residences, JP Senior Homes, in Laguna Hills and Mission Viejo. Twenty staff members, including three fluent in Japanese, currently care for 36 residents.
Because 90 percent of the residents are of Japanese descent, the facilities offer mostly Japanese cuisine. Three times a week, the caregivers take cooking classes to learn how to make real Japanese dishes. Maki also teaches the staff members several important Japanese words as well as Japanese customs.
For Kanichiro, the decision to move into JP Senior Homes didn’t come easily. When Kazuko was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Kanichiro was determined to take care of her at home. But, as her symptoms progressed, it became a big strain on him physically and emotionally, even with help from a part-time caregiver.
Two years ago, Mikio, their only son, and his wife asked the couple to move in with them. “My son works full-time, but he came into our bedroom to change his mother’s diapers at three or four in the morning every day,” Kanichiro recalled. “I felt sorry to trouble him.”
After a year of living together, Kanichiro couldn’t get over his sense of guilt. He then started gathering information about senior care facilities at a caregivers’ support group meeting hosted by the Orange County Japanese American Association every third Saturday in Orange.
There, Kanichiro learned about Japanese-owned residential care homes. He was drawn to the facts: these cozy homes in nice residential neighborhoods offer Japanese-speaking caregivers and volunteers, Japanese cuisine, a culturally sensitive support staff, and — with only six residents living in each home — a great deal of privacy, peace, and quiet.
Additionally, these assisted living facilities can provide 24-hour supervision with aid in eating, dressing, and bathing. They accept anyone over the age of 60, as well as younger residents who live with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia.
The facilities are capable of taking care of anyone except patients with feeding tubes. Doctors, X-ray technicians, hair stylists, and exercise instructors all visit the residences regularly to satisfy residents’ needs.
Safety, delicious food, and happiness are the main priorities that Maki has for the residents at JP Senior Homes. She makes sure that her staff members care for residents with respect and grace.
“Teaching anyone how to clean, cook, and wash is a piece of cake, but kindness and respect can only be learned through a person’s own experiences. So, for example, I always ask my staff to feed each other to place themselves in the residents’ position,” Maki said.
From her many years of senior care experience, Maki understands that there’s no manual when it comes to caring for someone. “It varies from person to person and symptom to symptom. Human connection with dignity is the key to happy life. That’s what I tell my staff.”
At JP Senior Homes, the monthly cost is between $3,300 and $4,000 for a shared room and between $3,500 and $4,500 for a private room. Diaper changes and drug administration can be arranged for an additional charge.
Long-term care insurance will cover those costs. Kanichiro is glad that he has taken out the insurance because his wife and he are able to receive benefits thanks to their coverage.
Maki understands that not everybody is capable of paying over $3,000 monthly. She said that JP Senior Homes offers three rooms for low-income seniors. The payments are based on each resident’s financial situation.
“For those who do not have family to turn to, please don’t hesitate to contact us. I don’t want anybody to worry about his or her future alone. There may be ways that we can help, so please call me,” said Maki.
In fact, on a couple of occasions, residents lost their estate during their stay at JP Senior Homes, but Maki took care of them for free until their very last day. “You cannot stay in this business unless you have compassion and a strong desire to help others.”
Maki’s next dream is to help senior citizens in her hometown, Okinawa. She has already built an assisted living facility, Rosehill Home, on 2.5 acres of land. The residence will accommodate up to nine people, and will have its grand opening soon.
For Kanichiro and Kazuko, a year has passed since their “new” life at JP Senior Homes. “There are only six of us living in this beautiful home. I feel as if we were a real family,” Kanichiro said.
Last year, a doctor said that Kazuko’s days were numbered. “I have no regrets. I’ve done everything I could for her,” said Kanichiro. This year marks their 61st anniversary since they tied the knot in Mie Prefecture. “I’m extremely happy living with my beautiful wife in a nice, peaceful home again. It reminds me of the happy days when we first got married.”
OCJAA holds a monthly caregivers’ support group at its office, 2190 N. Canal St. in Orange, on the third Saturday of each month at 1 p.m. For more info, call (714) 283-3551.
The Little Tokyo Service Center offers an Alzheimer’s Association authorized support group in three locations: South Bay at 4030 Spencer St. #107, Torrance; San Fernando Valley at 12953 Branford St., Pacoima; and Los Angeles at 222 S. Hewitt St., Los Angeles. For more info, call (213) 473-3035.
JP Senior Homes
25032 Woolwich St.
Laguna Hills, CA 92653