Older people in long-term nursing care for dementia and other illnesses are increasingly getting involved in work at convenience stores and other businesses that are struggling to find staff due to Japan’s acute labor shortage.

The feeling of purpose gained from their efforts encourages people to become self-reliant and gives a sense of satisfaction, according to an industry insider, who says the initiatives offer an opportunity to expand a framework that has proven mutually beneficial to social-welfare service providers as well as understaffed businesses.

“I enjoy coming here, and I am happy to see other people pleased,” said Masako Kawashita, 80, who works at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture. Wearing a company uniform and black apron, she performs tasks such as sanitizing shopping baskets.

As part of an arrangement between the store and a nearby care facility, Kawashita and others in their 60s to 90s who are certified as requiring long-term care for mild dementia, engage in work such as stacking and checking shelves with the support of a caregiver from the facility. They do not serve customers.

They work one hour each visit and receive a shopping voucher worth ¥1,000 ($8.80) for every three shifts, which they can exchange for products throughout the 7-Eleven store network.

The program was started under the “Nanashoku (Seven Color) Project,” jointly launched by care providers and convenience store owners to encourage people with dementia to engage socially and to add work to their weekly schedule.

They work during times set aside for recreational activities at their care facilities.

Those involved have a strong work ethic, says, Takayuki Morishige, 41, operator of Yasuragi no Mori Maebara, a care facility in Funabashi that participates in the project, adding, “People who normally use walking sticks have begun working without them.”

Store owner Yusuke Kujirai, 47, who employs the older people at three of his stores, said, “Staff members are happy to see them come to work with such enthusiasm.” Their presence has energized the stores, he said.

The ability to work to some level has little to do with dementia, Tsugumi Sato, 28, secretary general of the project, said. People with the disorder can work at such businesses because people with diverse backgrounds and work histories are able work at convenience stores.

In 2018, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare informed local governments nationwide that users of care services would be allowed to engage in so-called paid volunteer activities.

People in care in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture, deliver direct mail within walking distance for Yamato Transport Co.

In Machida, Tokyo, care provider Days BLG!, a pioneer in initiatives to engage people with dementia in meaningful work, began a program nine years ago to allow its users to place flyers in mailboxes and wash cars at car dealerships.

Takayuki Maeda, 45, representative of Days BLG!, who offers advice to care facilities across Japan, stressed the importance of people who can gauge corporate needs and conditions and match those to the wishes and abilities of older people.

He pointed out that understanding about the value of the project can only progress at speed if precedents are set. Once it is proven to work, local governments will be more supportive of the program.

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