National

Senile seniors challenge Japan Inc.

Businesses gear up for climb in dementia, other age-related ills

by Sawako Obara

Kyodo

As businesses grapple with the social changes being brought about by the rapidly graying population, dealing with senility has become a fact of life at shops and banks.

Supermarket operators and banks have been struggling to figure out how best to handle customers with Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related disorders, and a government-led care support training initiative is attracting interest as a source of clues.

When shopping in large stores, people with dementia tend to get lost or act erratically, sometimes grabbing food from shelves and eating it on the spot, for example. In banks, it is not unusual anymore to see senile people standing baffled at an ATM as they try to recall their password.

To address problems like these, many supermarkets and banks require employees to take a care support training lesson sponsored by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. People with such training are then titled “supporters for people with dementia” or dementia care assistants, although the training is nothing more than a one-off lesson lasting just 90 minutes or so.

Major retail chain Aeon Co. incorporated the training into its employee education program in 2007. By now around 38,000 Aeon employees have taken it.

At Aeon stores, misbehaving customers presumed to be suffering from dementia are quietly led away, rather than being reprimanded in the open, and their family or a local administrative office is notified if necessary.

The kid-glove approach has spawned a new challenge: Some people attempt to shoplift with impunity by pretending to be senile.

In any case, the care support lesson is apparently providing useful guidance. “Previously I was at a loss as how to relate (to people with dementia), but now I listen to them patiently,” an employee said.

Among banks, Tokyo Tomin Bank is a particularly eager adopter of the care support program. In January 2013, all of the bank’s 1,600 or so employees started receiving the care support training and completed it in just three months.

Meanwhile, Hachioji Nagafusa Post Office, which is in an aging housing complex in the western Tokyo suburb of Hachioji, is doing much more than post offices are supposed to do to support senile people.

Surrounded by apartments mostly inhabited by elderly families, the post office is visited by more than a few customers each day who are presumed to be senile.

On one occasion, the postmaster, Yuriko Asahara, was worried by the sorry sight of a frail woman who regularly came in. The woman looked thinner on each visit, so it occurred to Asahara that she might be starving. Asahara contacted a local care support center and explained the problem.

In another case, Asahara went out of her way to escort an elderly couple, both presumed to be suffering from dementia, to the care support center.

“Unless we properly relate to customers with dementia, we can’t do business,” Asahara said.

By the end of 2013, the number of dementia care assistants under the state-sponsored training initiative had surpassed 4.75 million nationwide.

Hiroko Sugawara, who heads the organization overseeing the training initiative, voiced hope that the business world will do more to complement the government’s program.

“There are so many people with dementia that local authorities can’t do enough. Companies directly involved in people’s everyday life must give support,” she said.