Toronto Star

The difference makers


In Japan, the battle against dementia is all hands on deck. Meet some of the people who have joined the fight.

The searcher

Hiroshi Tahara has a personal mission: find the missing. It began in 2003, after the ex-cop retired and started a non-profit organizati­on — funded entirely by Tahara and his volunteers — called Missing Person Search.

The goal was to help desperate parents find their missing children. But over the years, Tahara has been hearing more and more from families who’ve lost a relative with dementia. These people now make up about 20 per cent of cases — and they tend to be trickier to find. “It’s very difficult after three days,” he said. “A lot of cases are found dead.”

The city transforme­r

Uji, one of Japan’s oldest cities located on the outskirts of Kyoto, is trying to become a “Dementia-friendly city” where people with the disease can live normally. At the forefront of this effort is the gentle-mannered Dr. Toshio Mori, who is doing everything from teaching educationa­l classes and advising local government to keeping people with dementia active through activities like tea-picking field trips — all while treating patients through his practice.

“Dementia is not a problem with others. It’s your problem. It’s your issue,” Mori said. “If you are a grandchild, and you have four grandparen­ts that live long, you will (likely) have four dementia patients in your family . . . we have to tackle this issue as a whole of Japan.”

The town crier

Tomofumi Yamamoto has been a journalist since 1975, winning awards for work that includes exposing a major corruption scandal and covering the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo.

But in 2014, the 61-year-old reporter committed a rookie mistake: he stood up an interview subject. He had forgotten about the appointmen­t — and, as a doctor later explained, it was because he has mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can be a precursor to dementia.

At first, Yamamoto worried about the impact on his career — but then he realized he had found his latest story. Yamamoto began writing a regular column about coping with MCI, which has now been turned into a book. “I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “And the most important thing for me is I can share my fears, ideas and thoughts.”

The teacher

A major gap in Japan is that frontline doctors and general practition­ers are still missing dementia cases. To fix this, Dr. Kenji Toba, president of the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontolog­y, is training doctors on dementia — everything from making a proper diagnosis to how they can support a patient’s caregiver.

After seven years, the program has trained 4,000 doctors — who, Toba hopes, will go on to train other doctors in their communitie­s. “I would like to be fired from the training program, because all general practition­ers have become so good and able to organize,” he says half-jokingly. “However, it may be still five or 10 years that I’ll still have such a bothersome job.”

The activist

Thirty-five years ago, Takami Kunio’s mother was diagnosed with dementia and he found himself struggling for support. He realized Japan needed to wake up to the problem of dementia so he launched the Alzheimer’s Associatio­n of Japan, based out of Kyoto.

Today, the associatio­n has 47 branches across Japan and 12,000 members. While Kunio thinks the government is still underprepa­red for the seven million dementia cases projected for 2025, he doesn’t think the country is headed for disaster. “I think Japan and Japanese society will not look so different (in 2025) because . . . the understand­ing of dementia patients is getting better,” he said. “I don’t see a crisis in the future.”

The global player

Dr. Kiyoshi Kurokawa is one of Japan’s foremost scientific minds, acting as a science adviser to the cabinet of Japan and hand-picked to head the 2011 independen­t investigat­ion into the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

After the G8 dementia summit in 2013, Kurokawa was also tapped to join the newly created World Dementia Council, which aims to stimulate innovation that will lead to better dementia treatments. The council has 19 members, including Dr. Yves Joanette with the Canadian Institute for Health Research.

Kurokawa sees a place for robots in the future of dementia care. “They have a lot of potential. They can work 24 hours a day, they can talk to patients, they can help with bathing.”

The carer When Nobuko Tsuboi became her mother’s caregiver, she realized there was a serious gap in care facilities for people suffering from dementia. In 2003, the warm and friendly mother-of-two decided to start a dementia daycare, which Tsuboi now runs out of her old family home. (Her mother died five years ago.)

In 2005, Tsuboi also built a group home for dementia patients on the property next door — a clean, light-filled facility that houses 18 residents in varying stages of dementia. Their care is covered under Japan’s long-term care insurance, which has fuelled developmen­t (and competitio­n) in the dementia care industry. “When I started this 10 years ago, there was nothing at all,” she says.

 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada