Dementia frontrunner Japan destigmatises condition, stresses community care
TOKYO – When Masahiko Sato was diagnosed at age 51 with early-onset Alzheimer’s, he felt his life was over. A decade later, Sato has a mission: destigmatising a condition with a growing social impact in a country that leads the global aging trend.
“What I want most to tell people is, ‘Don’t underestimate your abilities. There are things you cannot do but there are lots of things you can do, so do not despair,” Sato told Reuters in an interview at a park outside Tokyo, where he and his supporters gathered for traditional cherry blossom viewing.
“The most painful thing is when someone says ‘I am pitiable’. I am not pitiable. There are inconveniences, but I am not unhappy,” said Sato, a former systems engineer who has lectured around Japan and written a book with the same message.
Encouraging people with dementia to speak out is part of Japan’s effort to ease the negative image of a disorder that affects nearly 5 million citizens and is forecast to affect 7 million, or one in five Japanese age 65 or over, by 2025.
Japan is a global frontrunner in confronting dementia, the cost of which has been put at 1 percent of world GDP.
“Whether people with dementia can ‘come out’ depends on the values and culture of the community,” said Kumiko Nagata, research director at the Dementia Care Research and Training Centre, Tokyo, adding that attitudes were changing.
To be sure, people with dementia like Sato, a bachelor who managed to live alone until last year by using his phone and now an iPad to make up for memory loss, are a minority.
Many live with relatives who struggle to juggle care with jobs. Some 100,000 workers quit each year to care for elderly relatives, a figure Prime Minister Shinzo Abe aims to cut to zero by 2025, when all Japan’s babyboomers will be 75 or older.
Families providing care accounted for nearly half of the estimated 14.5 trillion yen ($133 billion) in social cost of dementia in Japan in 2014.
Kanemasa Ito is one such care-giver. Ito had to shut the two convenience stores he and his wife, Kimiko, ran together when she was diagnosed with dementia 11 years ago at the age of 57.
“I had planned to work until I was 85,” Ito told Reuters, sitting with Kumiko at their home in Kawasaki, south of Tokyo.
“I thought, will the rest of my life just be caring for my wife?” added Ito, 72, who later became a home helper himself and now entrusts his wife to a day-care center several times a week. -Reuters