When rescue workers responded to a midnight emergency call from an Osaka apartment unit in August 2016 and rushed to the scene, they first had to climb over piles of junk including empty cans and leftover food. Among it, they found a dehydrated elderly woman whose thinking was muddled; nearby was her older sister who was suffering from dementia and in a state of confusion.
Their case illustrated another aspect of the growing problem posed by dementia in Japan.
Some people with the illness are unable to discard their garbage. Some unintentionally start fires, while others aimlessly wander around their apartment complexes or on nearby streets where their actions often go unnoticed.
In the case of the Osaka sisters, both in their 80s, neither had life-threatening injuries. But a regional assistance center official who visited them recounted the potential dangers the women faced.
Their room was sealed, the air-conditioning system was not functioning, and a bad odor was emanating from the place.
“If it had been one day later, both could have died,” the official said.
With the consent of the younger sister who owned the unit, the center arranged for a firm to dispose of 20 tons of garbage that took a week to clear out. The woman has since sold the unit and the sisters have moved out.
A briefing to residents in the other apartment units about what happened drew mixed reactions. Some expressed concern about the women, but others were more critical. One said an incident of this kind could lower the building’s real estate value.
Garbage disposal is hardly the only problem related to people with dementia.
In recent years, elderly people wandering the streets have raised public concern. There have also been a number of mishaps including water leaks caused when people with dementia improperly turn off their taps, causing sinks of baths to overflow.
According to the Condominium Management Companies Association, there are cases in which fires were started when people attempted to use an electric rice cooker on top of a stove. There are also anxious elderly residents who repeatedly consult landlords about every little problem.
Seniors are also emerging as a new demographic of apartment dwellers.
By age, residents in their 60s accounted for the largest share of households at 31 percent, while 19 percent were in their 70s or older, according to the fiscal 2013 data from the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. Combined, this means people in their 60s and older account for half the total, up 10 points from five years earlier. In contrast, those in their 40s and 50s declined.
There is also a stark change underway in their lifestyles, with more and more older couples choosing to move out of single-family homes and into apartments once their children become independent.
“While an apartment lifestyle may be comfortable, ties with the local community become weaker and there is a need to foster new relationships with neighbors,” a welfare worker in Tokyo said, suggesting it is better to forge such ties early on in case they need to ask for help.
Management boards of apartments or property management companies handle troubles that surface, but there is a limit to what they can do.
“Even when we request help from family members of the residents, they refuse. At times, (the kin) cannot be reached,” said an official of the association.
This is where assistance groups to be set up in municipalities in April will come in handy, according to Shuichi Awata, leader of a research team promoting elderly independence with the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology.
“If residents sense something is amiss, they can contact the support teams and welfare workers could come and listen” to their concerns as needed, he said.
Awata added it is necessary to get in contact with people with dementia as soon as possible, foster their trust and encourage them to seek medical attention.