Toronto Star

It takes a village to watch for dementia danger signs

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TOKYO— Aeon is Japan’s version of Loblaws, but on steroids, with more than 18,700 supermarke­ts and stores. Two years ago, when Aeon opened its flagship mall, some 1,000 employees showed up for the enthusiast­ic “opening ceremony.”

The full-day event opened with an unusual lesson.

“We learned how to react to people who might have dementia,” recalls Shoko Koizumi, a customer service manager.

Since 2007, the Asian retail juggernaut has been training its 400,000 “Aeon people” in Japan to deal with dementia.

The retailer is just one player in a vast and ever-growing network. Japan calls it the Dementia Supporter Caravan and it has 6.1 million members — an army scattered across the country ready and willing to support people whose fading cognitive abilities have left them struggling to support themselves.

The goal of the Dementia Supporter Caravan is to rebuild society into one that understand­s the disease and helps.

It is a simple but big idea that has inspired knockoffs around the world, including in Canada, where the federal government and the Alzheimer Society of Canada launched its “Dementia Friends” campaign this summer. The idea started with a single person. In 2005, Hiroko Sugawara was editing a magazine about seniors’ issues and found herself increasing­ly worried about Japan’s ballooning dementia rates.

At the same time, birth rates were plummeting, Japanese families were shrinking, and more elderly people were living alone.

“Their families can’t help them,” said Sugawara, speaking through a translator. “So I had the idea that I wanted all of Japanese society to help.”

Her plan was an educationa­l pyramid scheme.

The peak of the pyramid is Sugawara and her team of three. They travel Japan spreading the word and teaching companies, municipali­ties and large organizati­ons.

The next level down are the “caravan mates” — people who work at these companies and are trained to be trainers. They then go on to educate people who occupy the base of the pyramid: co-workers, volunteers, schoolchil­dren and just about anyone else willing to read the 30-page textbook and sit through a 90-minute training session.

But is it working? The question is difficult to answer because the initiative isn’t being formally evaluated, says Mayumi Hayashi, a research fellow with the Institute of Gerontolog­y at King’s College London.

“In European countries . . . everything becomes evaluated and monitored. But in Japan, they tried something quite different,” Hayashi says. “The government doesn’t focus on evaluation or evidence, so they encourage experiment­ation and let communitie­s do whatever they think is good.”

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