Japan’s rapidly aging society is spurring technological innovation, including the use of a tracking system designed to help families and nursing facilities locate people suffering from dementia when they lose their way or go missing.
As the country with the most aged population, Japan is poised to see its postwar baby-boomer generation — currently the biggest age demographic — form a population stratum aged 75 or older by 2025.
With the help of a smartphone app, thumb-size portable electronic devices developed by Sohgo Security Services, popularly known as ALSOK, that can be placed in pockets, wallets or attached to shoes are expected to help quickly find dementia sufferers who go missing.
The system works using Bluetooth wireless technology — the standard for exchanging data over short distances.
It might be difficult for a resident of a community to notice a person with dementia who is simply wandering the streets.
But if the person is carrying the gadget, dubbed “Mimamori Tag,” and passes a volunteer who has downloaded the free app to their smartphone, the positioning data of the person who has gone missing are automatically sent and stored on ALSOK’s computer servers.
The system also features tabletop detectors that can be installed at local businesses. These can also pick up the signal and store the data on ALSOK’S servers. As the data are sent anonymously, there is no concern about leaking private information.
Family members or those conducting the search can then find the missing person by checking the stored data via the app, pinpointing their current location and where they may be headed.
As more people download the app and more tabletop detectors are distributed, the amount of data stored will increase, making it easier and quicker to find missing people.
The Mimamori device — mimamori can be translated to “watch over” — is much less cumbersome and lighter than a typically fist-sized GPS gadget, commonly used by hundreds of municipalities across Japan for the same purpose.
In a trial conducted in the city of Kitakyushu in January, the security service company “obtained a good result,” according to Daiki Shimamura, an ALSOK official promoting the system.
Two search teams consisting of six people each were both able to find a person holding the device within 10 minutes in a 2-sq.-km area, assisted by 30 tabletop detectors. It took dozens of people about 30 minutes to find a person without using the system. The test subjects were not actual dementia patients.
ALSOK’S devices are expected to be sold to municipalities for ¥2,200 per individual, plus ¥200 per month for their use. The tabletop detectors cost ¥23,000 per unit and can be rented on a monthly basis for ¥1,400. ALSOK is aiming to begin commercial sales of the equipment before next spring.
The number of people who went missing due to dementia jumped 27.1 percent to 12,208 in 2015 from 2012, accounting for 14.9 percent of the total number of missing persons, according to the National Police Agency.
The figure is expected to rise further as the ratio of elderly people — those aged 65 or older — is forecast to reach 40 percent in 2060 from 26.7 percent in 2015, according to a projection by the Cabinet Office.
Anticipating demand, Eisai Co., a Tokyo-based pharmaceutical firm that has developed medications for dementia, has created a device similar to ALSOK’s with a Tokyo-based technology venture. The two companies are conducting trials in a number of municipalities and also plan to begin commercial sales before spring 2018.
The city of Tama in suburban Tokyo began employing ALSOK’s system in April to support elderly residents and their families following the decision by the infrastructure ministry to adopt the service for pilot projects around the nation.
Tama will receive government subsidies until 2019 as a way of promoting the business model to help make the community more livable for the elderly.
The city encompasses part of Japan’s largest residential development, Tama New Town, which was developed from the mid-1960s during an era of high economic growth in response to the rising demand for affordable housing for people who commuted to central Tokyo. The town occupies 60 percent of the city’s total land area today.
About two-thirds of the community’s population of about 150,000 is living in the residential development. According to the local government, the ratio of people 65 and over was 29.4 percent in March, higher than the national average.
Tama represents a prime example of the task that faces the nation. One in 3 people in the city are expected to be at least 75 years old in 2025, as all the baby boomers who were born between 1947 and 1951, about 8.5 million people, will have reached that age around that time.
Since 2006, Tama has expanded its budget for elderly care, including building networks to closely watch seniors in accordance with the central government’s policies for promoting support measures for the elderly, particularly for dementia patients.
The state has been raising awareness about dementia, estimating the number of patients will grow to 7 million in 2025.
Over 2,000 Mimamori Tags are being provided for use in 10 cities nationwide by ALSOK, including Inagi, a city adjacent to Tama that is cooperating in the effort.
“Elderly residents come and go across city borders to visit hospitals in both cities, sometimes by train. We can prepare to care for those in need by using the system,” said Koji Takeda, a Tama official.
The hope is that Tama’s effort to support the elderly and ALSOK’s detection system will create a synergy effect in the community.
Twenty-three companies and organizations, including Seven-Eleven Japan, the leading parcel delivery service Yamato Transport, post offices, nonprofit organizations, co-op supermarkets and care service providers have agreed to cooperate.
“We call on (these companies) to voluntarily download the app into their employees’ smartphones in addition to placing the tabletop detectors at a number of their bases,” Takeda said.
Additionally, the city is seeking the help of hundreds of senior citizen volunteers in Tama who regularly clean public elementary and junior high schools and various buildings across the city to participate in a neighborhood watch.
“If many of them cooperate by downloading the app, we could have a very reliable network to detect the elderly that covers the entire city,” Takeda said.