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The growing issue of people with dementia getting lost and failing to return home — sometimes for years on end — is pushing more municipalities to support the elderly at the community level.

According to the National Police Agency, 10,322 elderly people with dementia were reported missing in 2013, up from 9,607 in 2012.

The problem stirred public interest when it was reported in May that a 67-year-old woman who had gone missing in Tokyo since 2007 was reunited with her family at a nursing home in Gunma Prefecture.

The woman went unidentified for seven years because police could not figure out her name, address or other basic information.

Kumiko Nagata, a manager at the Dementia Care Research and Training Center in Tokyo, said it’s important for people to carry basic identification once they get older, even if they don’t have dementia. She said it’s also a good idea to prepare a list of places that seniors or their kin visit on a daily basis to help find them in case they get lost, sick or have an accident of some sort.

Although this is simple to do, Nagata said many adults may not find the idea appealing. She suggests they carry basic ID in a nice key holder or other object that suits their tastes.

She believes that dealing with the issue of seniors with dementia disappearing should be tackled at the national, local, and family levels.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry announced June 10 that they will begin studying the behavioral patterns of elderly who get lost starting this summer. It plans to ask each prefecture to look into the routes on which the incidents occur, and to keep track of what kind of psychological state each person was in at the time.

It has also asked each prefecture to tally the number of people who have vanished and the number of unidentified elderly they have found who are now being cared for in local nursing homes. They have also been asked to report the level of nursing care that their seniors receive.

On a municipal level, many prefectures are tackling the problem with help from their communities.

For example, the city of Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, has created several programs over the past decade that match the needs of the elderly and their families, aiming to turn the city into a place “where the elderly can feel at ease to wander around.”

In Omuta, where nearly a third of the residents are 65 or older, annual training sessions have been held since 2004 to help people deal with confused seniors who are apparently lost. Even elementary school and junior high school students participate in the program, local officials said.

The sessions involve residents holding role-playing scenarios in pairs, with one member acting as the lost person. The participants practice such approach phrases as “Are you having some kind of problem?” or “Are you OK?” while speaking in a soft voice. The drills also show them how to report missing persons.

“It all started from the residents’ side, in which the Hayame South Humanity Network, one of the co-ops in Omuta, had a strong desire to prevent isolated deaths from occurring among the city’s elderly,” said Seigo Nitta of the Omuta Municipal Government.

The project has expanded to more than 2,000 residents, with the sessions now held by the municipal office, he said.

“We need to think why we’re holding these sessions. When some elderly gets lost in the local community, of course it’s important to seek out those who are missing,” he said. “But what’s equally important is the preliminary step, where we need to make a community or a system that works, where we can watch over and cooperate with people with dementia and their families.”

To this end, the local municipal office has created a network that includes the police, fire department, post office and local companies.

The city of Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, has a similar program. An official in the senior citizens support section of the Matsudo Municipal Government said continuing such programs is important because “the more eyes there are that look out for the elderly in town, the more likely it is that the community will find out when something unusual, such as an elderly person wandering around, is happening.”

In the Matsudo workshop, volunteers learn what dementia is and how they can help those with the disease, through a nonprofit organization called Caravan Mate, which holds workshops to train volunteers.

In May 2014, 2,096 people signed up to become members of Orange Koekake Tai (which roughly means Units That Call Out to the Elderly), where they voluntarily speak up whenever they see an elderly person wandering around town.

“It’s very important to raise public awareness, but more importantly, we should increase the number of supporters who help the elderly and who have correct knowledge about dementia,” the official said.

Nagata points out that it’s also vital for the elderly themselves to make an effort to connect with the community.

“They don’t have to do anything special. These days there are a wide range of social activities organized by local governments, and they can learn about them in their local paper or by word of mouth,” she said.

“Being an elderly or a dementia patient spans a long time, so there’s a limit to relying on just the family or experts,” Nagata said. “It’s important to start early, even before you get dementia, to find places and people that you can spend fun time with and talk about the small things that worry you.”

People should make an effort “to make as many ties as possible in the local community, so that you’re not alone when you grow old,” she said.

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