Katsushi Oshiro, 43, a former salesman diagnosed with early-onset dementia, takes a bus to the car dealership where he works four days a week, being careful to view his commuting route using photos and a map to avoid getting lost.
Oshiro found out about his illness three years ago, but instead of being forced to quietly retire — as is often the case with people who develop the illness — his Toyota outlet in Naha, Okinawa Prefecture, transferred him to a car-washing position.
Oshiro cleans about 40 cars in an eight-hour workday, using an automated washing machine and a handy vacuum, before wiping the cars down.
“He works carefully and efficiently,” said Yukiharu Uehara, manager of the outlet.
The washed vehicles are moved by his co-workers because Oshiro had to surrender his driver’s license as a result of the diagnosis. Workers in maintenance and sales all help him when he needs it.
“Supporting each other is the natural thing to do,” Uehara said.
People with dementia, the most common cause of which is Alzheimer’s disease, suffer from a progressive decline in mental acuity reflected by loss of memory, intellect and social skills. For those under 65, it is called early-onset dementia.
The health ministry estimates there are approximately 38,000 people with early-onset dementia in Japan.
Though still searching for ways to utilize their abilities, companies in Japan are gradually becoming more supportive of those with dementia. This includes consulting with health and labor experts and advising workers on how best to deal with colleagues with dementia, such as by giving them easier tasks and longer breaks.
In Oshiro’s case, he was moved from sales when he started to exhibit such symptoms as being unable to recognize his customers. He would sometimes get lost on the way to work and hide in the back of a storehouse to take breaks due to fatigue.
Oshiro said he was frustrated at first and wanted to return to his sales job. He also thought he might be dismissed from work altogether and was overcome with fear that he might be unable to support his wife and three daughters.
But he was ultimately able to keep his job, and his boss now allows him to take breaks when he needs to.
“I get nervous since I’m forgetful. But I really appreciate the support from everybody,” Oshiro said.
Saori Nakano, 50, a local coordinator who helps support workers with early-onset dementia, played a key role in Oshiro’s case.
She consulted with prefectural job-placement staff and personnel officials at the dealership to arrange adequate working conditions for him. She also sent a “job coach” to give him direct advice, while holding “supporter training seminars” to improve his co-workers’ understanding of dementia.
Nakano credits the entire company for Oshiro’s success thus far.
A 44-year-old care worker in Miyagi Prefecture who has early-onset dementia gets similar support from his employer.
The man, who has 10 years’ experience and declined to give his name, has been able to continue working at a group care facility for seniors in Natori since being diagnosed.
Due to his illness, he made a series of mistakes while working at a different facility and was forced to resign. But afterward, The other facility hired him under the “disabled worker employment quota system,” which is designed to encourage businesses to hire more people with disabilities.
Since he has difficulty remembering procedures at work, he does not work night shifts or help the elderly take baths. His inability to do the job completely has left him frustrated.
But his co-workers trust him to help with meals and keep watch over the residents.
“To begin with, he is an excellent nurse,” said the facility manager, Keiko Sasaki, who entrusts him with jobs he is good at.
“His calm way of caring is the work of a professional. There is a lot others can learn from him,” she said.
In 2016, Japan enacted a law banning discrimination against the disabled. It includes a requirement that obliges public office workers to provide such help as reading aloud for the visually impaired or writing to communicate with people with impaired hearing.
Japan is aiming to boost the employment of people with physical and mental disabilities. The labor ministry has raised the target to 585,000 by the end of the year starting April 2022, from 496,000 as of June 2017.
In April, the law regulating the disabled worker employment quota system was revised to expand its scope. Private-sector businesses are now required to ensure that people with disabilities make up 2.2 percent of their employees, up from 2 percent. People with early-onset dementia have been added to the calculation as well.
Along with the rise in the quota, the scope has also been expanded to cover companies with 45.5 or more employees (with part-time staff counted fractionally) compared with the previous figure of 50 or more.
Takashi Mihara, who researches social security policy at NLI Research Institute, said arranging appropriate conditions for workers with dementia is similar to making “reasonable considerations” for people with disabilities under the 2016 law.
“Disabilities and illnesses can happen to anybody,” Mihara said. When it becomes more common to work toward arranging the appropriate working conditions for people with dementia, “It will help create a society that accommodates many people.”