The Ibasho Model of Elder Empowerment and Community Ownership


Aging is conventionally viewed as a process of decline, which marginalizes a fast-growing part of the world’s population and is detrimental to elders’ mental health. In contrast, the Ibasho model, led by eight core principles, empowers elders to co-create a community space where they lead in social and economic activities that benefit their neighbors and build social capital. There is a growing societal need for elder-led community initiatives like Ibasho, particularly as communities recover from harmful social and economic impacts of COVID-19 and look to develop community models that foster mental and emotional well-being and resilience.

Key Words:

elder empowerment, resilience, community development, older adults, inclusion


The COVID-19 pandemic took a disproportionate toll on older adults, who were vulnerable to marginalization, social exclusion, and loneliness (D’cruz & Banerjee, 2020). The Ibasho model described here offers an approach to address these challenges by empowering elders as “change agents” while infusing their lives with increased meaning and purpose, which are foundational to mental health. This approach has proven particularly effective in communities that are recovering from natural disasters, by providing older people with opportunities to teach younger generations how to survive without modern conveniences and in resource-constrained settings (Aida et al., 2023; Lee et al., 2022). It empowers elders to co-create a community space where they lead in the development of activities and operations to benefit their neighbors, with concomitant positive effects on social connectedness and community resilience.

Ibasho Model Core Principles

The Ibasho model empowers elders as active participants in changing the harmful outcomes created by society’s negative perceptions and expectations—social isolation, a loss of dignity and respect, and a sense of uselessness and irrelevance. In turn, the model improves the community’s ability to withstand shocks caused by natural hazards by creating a strong informal support system in which elders are the catalysts to strengthen social capital among community members of all ages. Maintaining a sense of personal agency may be a challenge in late life (Heckhausen et al., 2019), especially among those with limited choice or independence due to age-related health changes. The Ibasho model builds a strong sense of agency among older adults, individually and collectively, to feel empowered and to be able to actively participate and contribute to community life.

Given this theoretical grounding, Ibasho has developed the following eight core principles to provide a moral and philosophical foundation:

  1. Older people are a valuable asset to the community, can contribute to the society with confidence, and are leaned on and valued.
  2. Create informal gathering places that foster normalcy as opposed to institutional settings.
  3. Community members share a sense of ownership and pride, which drive development and implementation.
  4. All generations are connected and older and younger generations learn from one another.
  5. De-marginalization: All individuals, regardless of capacity, participate in community life.
  6. Local culture and traditions are respected.
  7. Communities are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable and resilient.
  8. Growth of the community is organic, and embraces imperfection and change gracefully.

Ibasho Sites in Operation

The Ibasho model was pioneered in Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake (GEJE) of 2011. Following the devastation, older people wanted to contribute and do something useful to help their town of Ofunato to recover. Older adults and other community members planned and built a community hub, an Ibasho Café, which is restoring the fabric of a community still recovering from the disaster. Older adults lead in all aspects of the cafe’s operations and programming.

In its first 6 years of operation, the Ibasho Café in Japan served more than 70,000 people and hosted more than 5,250 events, at which elders shared their knowledge with younger generations by cooking traditional foods, organizing a farmer’s market and afterschool care for school children, and teaching young people how to use old equipment without electricity.

‘In its first six years of operation, Ibasho Café in Japan served more than 70,000 people and hosted more than 5,250 events.’

That model was then replicated in two other post-disaster areas—Ormoc, Philippines, and Matatirtha, Nepal—with financial support from the World Bank and technical assistance from Japanese older adults and technical experts who shared the knowledge they had gained in establishing and maintaining Ibasho cafes. The sites in the Philippines and Nepal developed an evacuation map and risk-management plan and worked on income-generating activities to ensure their programs were self-sustaining. They serve as gathering places where ideas are generated for new community programs such as eco-tourism, cultural cooking classes, handicrafts, plastic recycling, and community beautification projects.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults at the Ibasho sites were quick to adapt and creative in supporting other community members. For example, in Japan, older adults started a catering business, creating and delivering bento boxes of food to older persons in their homes. Tables and chairs also were placed outside so community members could stop by and have socially distanced conversations. In Nepal, most households are multigenerational; during the pandemic, a program was started for younger persons in the house to teach older people how to use smart phones and other technology. In the Philippines, the Ibasho Café developed a project to feed children in the local community.

Adopting the Ibasho Model

A community that is interested in implementing an Ibasho Café must first determine its readiness to take on this initiative and convene an initial team of older adults. The founder, Dr. Emi Kiyota, works with community elders. Elders who are willing to take leading roles in the creation and realization of their community’s Ibasho Café site are identified through a process of engagement and discussion. This site may be co-designed and built from the ground up or an existing site can be repurposed as an Ibasho Café. Regardless, the operations and structure of the Ibasho Café site must be aligned with Ibasho principles.

Dr. Kiyota and her team provide ongoing technical support and assistance to committed sites and local leaders, monitor fidelity to Ibasho principles, and connect Ibasho Café leaders for networking and sharing of lessons learned. To ensure long-term sustainability, the Ibasho site should function as a sustainable organization with support from the local government (e.g., regulatory, information technology, legal), which can help the elders manage the site. For example, the local government in Ofunato, Japan, provided financial and logistics support in establishing the Ibasho Café as a nonprofit organization. The government also provided legal advice to elder leaders on building the Ibasho Café site in a post-disaster period.

Ibasho—Measurements and Impact

To date, the Ibasho sites in Japan, Nepal, and the Philippines have sustained their leadership, programming, and community engagement. An impact evaluation conducted with all three sites at regular intervals assessed the impact of Ibasho participation on social capital. Specifically, researchers examined the levels of self-efficacy for those who went to the Ibasho Café regularly (daily or weekly) versus those who did not. Findings indicated that those who attended Ibasho had self-efficacy scores 0.25 higher on a scale of 0 to 4 than those who did not attend (p < .10).

In addition, individuals who were at the café on a regular basis—daily or weekly—reported a moderately higher number of friends (2.3 on a 0 to 4 scale, p < .10) and a deeper connection to their neighborhood (p < .10; Kiyota et al. 2015). These findings demonstrate the social connectedness created by the Ibasho Café, which are critical for emotional and mental well-being.

Opportunities for Continued Evolution of Ibasho

Ibasho and COVID-19 Community Rebuilding

Events such as the pandemic can fuel a deficit narrative that older adults are weak and in need of help. In the wake of COVID-19, communities must rebuild social capital and reframe views of older adults as assets with lived experience and knowledge. As communities look to build resilience and strengthen social capital, older adults can play active roles in planning for natural disasters and climate change.

Local planners can employ inclusive approaches so elders can express issues and concerns about natural disasters and be part of developing solutions. Although older adults are most at risk during climate change because of decreased mobility and other physical changes, they are not just vulnerable to environmental threats but rather can be empowered to become older environmentalists with the right inclusive community development approaches (Pillemer et al., 2021).

‘Elders are not just vulnerable to environmental threats but rather can be empowered to become older environmentalists.’

Conceptually, Ibasho’s central understanding of aging as socially constructed and the Ibasho core principle of respect for local culture and traditions allows for flexibility in culturally adapting Ibasho sites. As we work with communities in Pacific Island locales including Hawaii, new enculturation opportunities will emerge. Hawaii is a priority site because of the potential for Ibasho to contribute to community resilience in locations that are facing existential threats from climate change and a rapidly increasing incidence of extreme weather events (Lee et al., 2022).

Moreover, Hawaii specifically has unique aging issues—the state is aging more rapidly than the rest of the United States and its geographic location blends Asian-Pacific and United States values with Native Hawaiian cultural values. While familial and volunteer opportunities exist, opportunities for older adults to be empowered leaders and mentors, and to give back to younger generations, are a new dimension contributed by Ibasho as part of a Pacific expansion phase.

Ibasho is a validated model that is self-sustaining, restoring an independent role for elders and furthering an interdependent role in society, while requiring minimal support from the government. As we enter a strategic expansion phase, the Ibasho model will continue to focus on elder empowerment and leadership, on advocating for the contribution that Ibasho can make to individuals’ mental health and well-being and community resilience, and on enculturating within new contexts.

Emi Kiyota, PhD, is founder of the Ibasho Organization in Singapore. Christy Nishita, PhD, is director of the University of Hawaii’s Center on Aging in Honolulu. She may be contacted at Yasuhiro Tanaka, PhD, is a researcher at the Ibasho Organization in Kyoto, Japan. Erin Ah Sue is founder of the Punahele Projects in Honolulu. Helen Turner, PhD, is a professor in the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, at the United Nations CIFAL Center Honolulu.

Photo credit: Dr. Yasuhiro Tanaka.

Photo caption: Summer Dance Festival held at the Ibasho House. 



Aida, T., Kiyota, E. Tanaka, Y., & Sawada, Y. (2023). Building social capital with elders’ leadership through a community hub “Ibasho” in the Philippines and Nepal. Scientific Reports, 13, 3652.

D'cruz, M., & Banerjee D. (2020). ‘An invisible human rights crisis’: The marginalization of older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic—An advocacy review. Psychiatry Research, 292, 113369.

Heckhausen, J., Wrosch, C., & Schulz, R. (2019). Agency and motivation in adulthood and old age. Annual Review of Psychology, 70, 191–217.

Kiyota, E., Tanaka, Y., Arnold, M., & Aldrich, D. (2015). Elders leading the way to resilience. The World Bank.

Lee, J., Aldrich, D. P., Kiyota, E., Yasuhiro, T., & Sawada, Y. (2022). Social capital building interventions and self-reported post-disaster recovery in Ofunato, Japan. Scientific Reports 12, 10274.

Pillemer, K., Cope, M. T., & Nolte, J. (2021). Older people and action on climate change: A powerful but underutilized resource. HelpAge International.