Renting Love

"Hello," says a chirpy little boy's voice. "My name is Yoshi. I'm five years old, and I'm your grandson." An elderly woman hugs him, and smiles at the young man and woman who have come in with him. She coos at the baby in the woman's arms. The meeting looks for all the world like a family reunion. But it isn't. The four visitors are actors, paid to play the part of a family for an elderly couple whose own children have either moved away or are too busy to visit. It's called Rent-a-Family, and it's a service offered by a handful of enterprising companies in Japan. News reports say the companies are doing a brisk business. The market for the service is elderly couples who are so lonely they're willing to rent a family for an evening of fake reminiscing and pretend conviviality. Grandma and Grandpa and their rented offspring talk, go on picnics, and even pray together before the family Buddhist altar, while the smell of incense fills the room. At about $400 an hour, Rent-a-Family services don't come cheap. But one elderly man told a reporter he'd rather spend money on rent-a-family sessions than on recreation. Then he added wistfully, "I hope someday we can live with our own children instead." Japanese sociologists say the demand for rented families is a result of a culture addicted to work. Since World War II, Japan has been determined to increase the nation's productivity. Many Japanese put in 60-to 80-hour work weeks. But in the process, they've created an emotional void. A void some people are so desperate to fill, they'll pay by the hour for mock family time. The idea may sound outrageous, but before you scoff at the Japanese, ask yourself whether America is all that far behind. Here, too, an obsession with making money is threatening to destroy family life. Companies think nothing of uprooting young families and sending them across the country, separating them from their elderly parents. And so, like the Japanese, we've become more willing to pay other people to spend time with our parents than do it ourselves. Oh, it's not as blatant as Rent-a-Family. But we build Leisure Worlds where paid assistants help the elderly play sports or learn a craft. Paid assistants help them shop and cook, or take them to a concert. Sure, retirement communities can be pleasant places to live. But they're also a symptom of the way Americans have glorified material prosperity over family relationships. Work may often become an idol, on whose altar we are willing to sacrifice our other God-given responsibilities. Honoring our parents is clearly one of those responsibilities; it's one of the Ten Commandments. Among God's people, there should never be the loneliness that so often plagues the elderly. There should never be a market for services like Rent-a-Family.


Chuck Colson


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