CHIBA - As scorching heat shimmered off the tarmac and licked at runners’ sun-kissed faces, an elated crowd erupted into deafening cheers Sunday morning in the city of Chiba at the stroke of 10.
A total of 204 people, including 10 people with dementia, were participating in a run as part of Run Tomo, a nationwide long-distance sash relay amongst people suffering from dementia, their relatives, medical and care workers and anyone looking to enhance their understanding of the disease.
Depending on their physical condition, some ran 200 meters while others covered 2 kilometers — many with supporters running alongside — during the relay along the roughly 25 km route.
As its population grays, Japan faces a growing prevalence of dementia. Nonprofit organization Dementia Friendship Club launched the relay in 2011, not only to raise awareness and facilitate understanding about dementia but also to work toward expanding a networked dementia-friendly community across the nation.
“We reached the consensus that a relay would be the best, because it allows anyone to readily participate for fun,” explained Noriko Urano, one of the group’s trustees.
Last year, a total of 14,521 people participated in the running events held in 41 prefectures, out of which 1,607 were people with dementia.
This year the event kicked off in Hokkaido on July 1, and will be held in various cities across the nation, mainly on weekends, before closing on Nov. 25 in Okinawa. The group also plans to hold the event in Taiwan in November.
Urano noted that the campaign has already encouraged many people with dementia to step out of their comfort zones. “We have heard that some participants have become more open to sharing their symptoms with others, some overcame the problem of social withdrawal, and some have even resolved to deliver speeches on dementia at different venues to heighten social awareness.”
Many social workers who support elderly people affected by dementia also participated in the event.
“A marathon is a great idea because it allows people on the streets to see that people with dementia can run as well as they do,” said Minoru Takada, 77, a social worker with the Association to Improve the Care of Dementia Chiba.
Harue Kanno, 65, a care worker at Excelsior Inagekaigan, a nursing home in Chiba, said: “Many people might perceive those with dementia as abnormal or scary. But they just need some extra help as infants do. With proper care and support, they can live happily as many others do.”
At Aeon mall in Chiba’s Makuhari commercial area, runners approaching the finish line in bright orange T-shirts were welcomed with thunderous applause from a crowd waving banners. A 78-year-old woman who had crossed the line, and asked not to be named, said: “I feel great after the marathon. I love doing sports and moving around. Thanks to Run Tomo, I was able to do what I enjoy doing. I would love to join in again next year.”
Mayumi Tachibana, 71, who was playing rock-paper-scissors with her mother Yoshi, 93, while watching the runners, said that although they were not able to run, she considered the event a good idea.
“The last thing a person with dementia should do is stay home all day long, which could possibly exacerbate his or her symptoms,” Mayumi said.
“My mother was a cheerful, responsible parent and a diligent employee. I had taken that for granted for a long time, so the discovery of the unexpected first signs of her dementia shocked me,” explained Mayumi. “But now I realized that concern about dementia is not just a distant matter affecting only others.”
“It has now naturally become an inseparable part of my life,” said Mayumi, as she looked at Yoshi and smiled.
Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai said he was delighted to see a great number of participants — more than he had expected — and emphasized the importance of facilitating further understanding about dementia in society as a whole.
“We should be sure to build a community that allows anyone to live without inconvenience, by making everything intelligible to the general public through proper guidance — information provision, and so forth,” he said, adding that he hopes to participate in the event himself next year.
Those who wish to participate in future events can apply through the group’s website (runtomo.org). Participants in wheelchairs are welcome.