As the number of people with dementia who were reported missing continues to rise in rapidly graying Japan, an expert in the field is underscoring the importance of community-wide support.

The National Police Agency said Thursday that the number of people with dementia who wandered from home and were reported missing reached a record 16,927 last year, up 1,064 from the previous year and nearly doubling since police began collecting such data in 2012.

Of the nearly 17,000 people who wandered off in 2018, 197 could not be found by the end of the year, while 16,227, including those reported missing in 2017 or earlier, were located, according to the police data. The remainder includes cases where a search request was withdrawn for some reason.

With around seven million elderly people in Japan expected to be suffering from dementia in 2025, when all baby boomers will be age 75 or over, the government approved a new program Tuesday on dementia that focuses on delaying the onset of symptoms and slowing the progress of the illness as well as helping patients live more comfortably.

For 2018, the data showed that 73.4 percent of missing people with dementia were found on the day that their disappearance was reported to police, while 99.4 percent were located within a week. Two people were found more than two years after they were reported missing.

A total of 508 missing dementia patients died in accidents or due to other reasons, the data showed.

Yoshimasa Takase, an expert on in-home care for dementia patients, said the primary cause of dementia-related wandering is “the desire to return to the home where the patients were born.” The symptom, he said, is often induced by disorientation over time and place, including losing track of dates and a sense of direction, that almost all people with Alzheimer’s disease will develop.

One of Takase’s patients had even traveled alone from his clinic, the Takase Clinic in Tokyo’s Ota Ward, to an area near the edge of Kawasaki.

In many cases, the missing patients were discovered after their families reported their disappearance to police, he said.

Takase said wandering tends to become a habit but will not persist for a long time due to patients’ declining physical strength.

To support patients who tend to wander, he said, smartphones come in handy. One example is a service provided by map publisher Shobunsha Publications Inc., which allows people who come across such dementia patients to notify family members by scanning a QR code sticker attached to their belongings.

Takase encourages young people, who are more familiar with smartphones, to “raise awareness of the dementia issue.”

He urges the patients’ family members to “connect with an appropriate medical institution and seek advice from a community general support care center in their local area.”

The overall number of people who went missing last year, including those not suffering from dementia, reached 87,962, the highest in a decade. Those in their 20s were the leading age group at 18,518. Of the total, 64.1 percent were male and 35.9 percent female.

By reason, diseases including dementia were the largest cause of disappearances, accounting for 23,347, or 26.5 percent, followed by family problems at 14,866, or 16.9 percent, and business troubles at 10,980, or 12.5 percent.

Information from Kyodo added

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