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Dementia Action Week: What can we learn from Japan’s approach to dementia care?

May 22, 2023

As the G7 Hiroshima Summit comes to a close, a commitment to dementia care is expected to dominate calls for change. The degenerative disease creates an increasingly imposing threat to Japan’s population: those over the age of 65 make up nearly 30% of the populace (for comparison, the same age group makes up just 18% of the UK). Their life expectancy is 85 years old; fourth highest in the world 

With such a large elderly population comes an increased risk of chronic illness. Projections estimate the number of people living with dementia will grow to one in five by 2025, indicating Japan is in the midst of a crisis.  

Dementia is no doubt a high priority for medical professionals in the UK, too – it was the leading cause of death in 2022, and our own numbers are set to rise to over one million affected by dementia by 2025 

But Japan is already attempting something radical to help those already living with dementia. Their shift to community care in recent years means their society is evolving to include vulnerable people, rather than silo them from civilisation. Could we learn something from Japan’s methods of caring for their ageing public? 

The dementia village 

Japan's Orange Plan aims to provide better lives for those living with dementia, allowing them to live within a community that better supports their needs. There’s a focus on raising public awareness in local services, such as banks and taxis, and local residents can become ‘dementia supporters’ by attending a 90-minute lecture.  

Civilians regularly take part in patrols, disseminating key information and occasionally helping with a person in distress. There are also ‘dementia cafes’ for carers and those living with dementia to spend time around others with similar circumstances.  

A heightened public consciousness around dementia and its effects is crucial, particularly for those involved in the everyday routine of someone with dementia, such as shop workers. Around 40,000 people with dementia go missing each year in the UK.  

“Around 70% of people with dementia may go missing at least once, with some at risk of going missing multiple times,” explains Professor Michael Hornberger, from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School. “Unfortunately, the first event when people with dementia go missing comes completely out of the blue, when doing such routine activities as getting the newspaper from the local shop.”  

The benefits of communal dementia care 

A tiny Dutch village just outside of Amsterdam go one step further than Japan. All residents of Hogeway have dementia. It's a Truman Show-esque world where the staff of the residents’ favourite restaurant, cinema and supermarket are actually caregivers. There are 24/7 security cameras and one door out, eliminating risk of lost and disorientated occupants. 

Dementia can be a very isolating disease. In the World Alzheimer Report 2019, many living with dementia said they felt “ignored” and “ostracised” in their social lives due to having dementia, with many sharing that they were “no longer getting invited to social gatherings.”  

Hogeway gives residents the freedom to live a more normal existence, where they are still able to experience the joys of human interaction.  

The theme of Dementia Action Week 2023 is seeking a timely diagnosis. Research shows Britons wait more than a month for a diagnosis, confusing symptoms with regular traits of ageing. More time can help families put a plan in place.  

“Many are facing dementia alone, without access to the vital support that a diagnosis can bring,” say Alzheimer’s Society. “We’re encouraging individuals and their families to seek a timely diagnosis and avoid reaching crisis point.” 

A timely diagnosis allows for forward planning, ensuring those living with dementia can continue to live within society for as long as possible. These communal models don’t confine residents to a care home and drastically reduces the costs associated with round-the-clock care. (The average annual cost is thought to be roughly £32,250 per person with dementia.) 

Could a dementia village work for the UK?  

There are signs that the UK has started to embrace the communal mindset of dementia care. Essex County Council has a ‘Memory Café’ that supports those currently dealing with the chronic condition. And some councils and local GPs are working on dementia-friendly areas, so those living with dementia can remain integrated within society.

This approach is more than just the help it provides those with dementia, it's about communal acceptance and awareness, which stops dementia from being so overwhelming and easier to manage. This could be the key to treating dementia with dignity.