That the number of centenarians in Japan — at a record 65,692 as of this month, a figure released every year ahead of Respect for the Aged Day this week — has been and will keep rising comes as positive news and can be attributed to advances in medical technology and services, improvement in living environment and increasing health consciousness that enable people to live longer. That there were only 153 centenarians when the health ministry’s annual survey began in 1963, with the number topping 10,000 in 1998, 30,000 in 2007 and 50,000 in 2012, shows how rapidly people’s longevity in this country has been extended. The average life expectancy stood at record 87.05 for women (the second-best in the world) and 80.79 for men (fourth-best) last year.
But a society in which people live longer also has its worrying aspects. One is that the number of people with senile dementia will inevitably grow with the rise in the elderly population. The number of senior people with dementia, estimated at 4.62 million in 2012, is forecast to reach 7 million — or 1 out of 5 elderly persons in Japan — in 2025. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry estimate shows that there are more than 8 million people with dementia, including those who suffer mild cognitive problems and are believed to carry a high risk of developing the symptom. Senile dementia will soon be a common illness.
The growing problem of senile dementia was one of the key issues discussed at the Group of Seven health ministers’ meeting last week in Kobe, where the participants agreed on the need for early diagnosis of patients and improvement in their living conditions. The World Health Organization estimates that the number of dementia patients worldwide will triple from the current 47 million by 2050 given the graying populations of many countries.
The government’s strategy in dealing with the issue calls for creating a society where the patients can “keep a life of their own” in their long familiar communities. That’s easier said that done. Realities of the nation’s aging society dictate that there will be a growing number of households comprised solely of elderly couples or senior residents living alone. Caring for aging dementia patients at home places a heavy burden on their family members. Community-based support for both the patients and their relatives will be essential, and national and local governments should take steps to encourage and support these efforts.
That more than 10,000 people either suffering from or are suspected to have senile dementia disappear from their homes every year highlights the risks confronting the patients. In 2015, the number rose 13 percent from the previous year to 12,208 across Japan. Nearly 70 percent of them were found safe on the day their families reported them as missing, and most of them were located within a week. They were either found by their relatives or the police, or returned home on their own. But nearly 500 people were found to have died either of illness or accidents by the time they were located.
There are large numbers of cases in which people with senile dementia wandered out of their homes or care facilities and traveled a surprisingly long distance. Locating and identifying them often requires sharing information about them among different authorities across prefectures. An 83-year-old man in Yokohama who disappeared in 2014 was later found collapsed on a street in Tokyo, but the local police or rescuers did not put him in protective custody because they did not know he suffered from dementia, and the man later died.
In another example, an elderly man who was placed in protective custody in Saitama Prefecture in 1996 and has since lived in a welfare facility as his identity remained unknown was reunited with his family in Tokyo for the first time in 18 years — after the relatives were alerted by media reports of him based on an announcement by the prefecture. Although the shirt he was wearing when he was found bore his name, efforts to identify him when he was found are believed to have been insufficient.
The surest way to ensure the safety of such people is to find them as quickly as possible. Police are promoting efforts to share information about patients who go missing, such as by showing their photos online, with the consent of their families. Last year, Osaka Prefecture began cooperating with convenience store chain operators to release information about missing people’s features so that the shop workers can help identify them if they enter their stores. In some other areas, such information is shared not only among the police and municipal authorities but local businesses such as taxi companies, gas stations and radio broadcasters.
Some local governments are ahead of others in such efforts. The health and welfare ministry reportedly plans to help prefectural governments organize meetings of municipal officials in charge of the issue so that they can share their experience and challenges. It will also subsidize the cost of regionwide drills involving different municipalities for locating missing dementia patients. Support for these local initiatives should be a key part of the national government policy in dealing with the issue.