Imagine 10,000 people with dementia going missing and never being found

TOKYO —

Mieko Kusanagi, 61, makes breakfast for her mother every morning, two years after Tsuya Takahashi, 89, disappeared.

Mother and daughter had lived together. Five years ago, the mother began showing signs of dementia. One morning Mieko woke to find her mother’s futon empty. She had wandered off.

It’s a growing problem, says Josei Seven (July 3). In 2013, no fewer than 10,322 elderly people suffering from dementia were reported missing. A dramatic instance came to light earlier this year. In 1996, an elderly man collapsed on the street in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture. Unable to tell police who he was or where he lived, he was taken to a nursing care facility – and remained there for 18 years, until he happened to be featured in a TV program on the issue and was recognized by his family.

The 2013 figure represents a rise of 715 over 2012. Most of those who wander off are soon found, but 155 remain unaccounted for and 388 are known to have died. “The tip of the iceberg,” says one expert Josei Seven speaks to, given that many families search on their own without enlisting the police.

This may be the most terrifying of all the various consequences of the rapid aging of the population. How is society to cope with tens of thousands – for the number is sure to rise – of lost people who quite literally do not know who they are? How are families to cope?

Mieko Kusanagi lives in rural Akita Prefecture. Tsuya, her mother, was known locally for her sewing skills, and used to do tailoring work for the neighbors. As she aged she began to have difficulty getting about. Mieko got her a walker to give her some degree of mobility. When Tsuya’s mind began to give way, Mieko wrote her name and address on the walker, so that wherever she went, she could be easily brought back. For two years they managed. On a morning in April 2012 when Mieko awoke to find her mother gone, she was at first not unduly alarmed. “She’ll be back,” she thought, and proceeded to make breakfast as usual.

Four hours passed before she and a brother finally decided to call the police. Three days later the police admitted defeat. Mieko and her brother continued searching on their own. It was rice-planting season, but the neighbors laid aside their work and helped. Posters were printed – some 20,000 of them – and distributed. They brought a few leads – all followed up; all dead ends.

What do you do? You have to do something. In sheer desperation Mieko turned to fortune-tellers. “I see a pig sty,” said one. Search parties fanned out to peer into pig sties. They saw pigs.

Tsuya Takahashi remains missing. And every morning Mieko prepares breakfast for her.

Japan Today

  • 13

    Okinawamike

    My wife wears a medical alert bracelet with information.

    How hard could it be to have a loved one wear the same thing with your cell number?

  • 4

    DenTok2009

    I can understand Kusanagi Mieko san not panicking when she found her gone; after all the woman needs a walker to get around, how far can she go? I hope Tsuya san will be found safe and sound just like the elderly man who collapsed on a street in Sayama and ended up in a nursing home. By the way, I wonder what he was called. He couldn't tell anyone his name so who gave him a name?

  • 5

    Strangerland

    My wife's grandmother disappeared in similar circumstances when my wife was in elementary school. One day she wandered away, and was never seen again. To this day, no one knows what happened to her.

  • 5

    DenTok2009

    @Okinawamike Perhaps there's a niche to be filled... A company offering medical alert bracelets or some sort of monitoring.

  • 4

    Novenachama

    My mother was diagnosed with dementia so I understand how memory problems can cause a potentially life threatening situation because of the wandering behavior. Even in the early stages of dementia, a person can become disoriented or confused for a period of time. The stress experienced by families and caretakers when a person wanders and gets lost is significant. I highly recommend an electronic GPS device that helps manage location.

  • -6

    Frungy

    In sheer desperation Mieko turned to fortune-tellers. “I see a pig sty,” said one. Search parties fanned out to peer into pig sties. They saw pigs.

    The fortune teller may have been correct. If you pass out in a pig sty you're not getting up again. Pigs will eat anything, including living human beings.

  • 0

    Reckless

    I wonder if the police investigated. It is possible there was foul play.

  • 3

    SenseNotSoCommon

    Imagine 10,000 people with dementia going missing and never being found

    Imagine their relatives have dementia too, and don't notice their absence.

  • -7

    yakimo

    This just shows how disconnected japanese society is where nobody cares about anyone. How can an old women walk out of the house and never seen again? Than she gets collected and put in nursing home? Nobody puts an add in tv, newspaper or informs police? what kinda society is that? if this happen in other countries pictures being posted on tv straight away . And how far can an older women walk anyway?

  • 1

    AKBfan

    Happens all over the world, not just Japan. The idea of a bracelet is nice (although a bit like a pet's collar) - sounds like a possible business opportunity......

  • -1

    mitoguitarman

    Implant chips on all citizens.

  • 9

    SwissToni

    Don't think because they're old they can't surprise any more. In her dementia fuelled delusions, my aged and infirm mother would scale walls in order to escape. Dementia patients wander off for many reasons, sometimes in fear, sometimes on a quest, so they will use their wits and all their strength to do what they have to do.

    Dementia patients are someone's family. The answer to the problem is care, respectful support and research to find a cure, not tagging and chipping.

  • 3

    Nessie

    Imagine 10,000 people with dementia going missing

    It's probably 10,000 cases, not people. More than few of these people probably went missing multiple times.

  • 6

    inkochi

    My old student came to me telling me she wanted to quit because her brother was driving home the night before, hit and killed a wayward old person on a dark street, quit his job in remorse and so she had to drop out of uni to go and work to get money to pay compensation money to the family of the deceased. I told her to finish uni in a years time so she could get a job with more money. So she stayed.

    The following week after the o-soushiki,my student came to uni, thanked me for the advice also telling me about how she thought that the family of the deceased had apologised more to her family about inconvenience (!) than they had actually apologised to the family of the deceased for the obvious.

    I think that they are going to need a lot more than just 'Day-Carer-Service' than even now, and soon.

  • 6

    Gerard van Schip

    My son wears a GPS unit so I can always find where he is. These things are insane cheap. Why not get them for the elderly?

  • 2

    Tessa

    @inkochi You did the right thing, and your student was very lucky to have your wise counsel.

    By the way, a student who works at a major shopping mall told me that recently 'Lost Child Centers' are becoming more like 'Lost Senior Centers.'

  • 4

    Himajin

    And how far can an older women walk anyway?

    You'd be surprised...they can also take taxis or trains, and hitch rides. I've seen all three happen. DH's uncle went from a town an hour out of Kobe into town , and to Higashi Nada, where he used to live decades ago by getting rides with truck drivers. If you don't know these people and that they have dementia, their stories seem very real and convincing...they have to get home before dark and they lost their wallets, etc.

    In her dementia fuelled delusions, my aged and infirm mother would scale walls in order to escape.

    Yes...they're on a mission...they have to get home to their parents, or their baby at home...they are quite determined. I'm sorry you and your mother had to go through that, Swiss Toni, that's rough.

  • 1

    Hawkeye

    Japan may not have enough affordable or government subsidised dementia care facilities so most families will keep the family members at home and hope they stay put or a friendly neighbor will bring them back home if they find them out wandering in the streets. My J-wife says in the old days, people would take the elderly out into the mountains and leave them to die of exposure rather than carry the burden of taking care of them at home. Has anyone ever heard about that custom or is my wife just trying to scare me?

  • 1

    Frungy

    HawkeyeJul. 02, 2014 - 12:48AM JST Japan may not have enough affordable or government subsidised dementia care facilities so most families will keep the family members at home and hope they stay put or a friendly neighbor will bring them back home if they find them out wandering in the streets.

    It definitely doesn't have enough facilities, affordable or otherwise. And yes, the J-cops spend a lot of time "patrolling" for lost seniors and taking them back home.

    My J-wife says in the old days, people would take the elderly out into the mountains and leave them to die of exposure rather than carry the burden of taking care of them at home. Has anyone ever heard about that custom or is my wife just trying to scare me?

    It isn't just in Japan. The tradition of old people going out, voluntarily, to "gather herbs" or "go hunting" in the dead of winter when they feel they're a burden on the community or their family is wide-spread internationally and not limited to Japan. It is ironic that while the debate about euthanasia rages this historical fact isn't ever mentioned. Less than two hundred years ago people would have given the old person a tearful farewell, but respected their right to choose their time of death.

    It isn't just a scary story in Japan. Every year the Japanese police and volunteers comb the area around Mt. Fuji and recover the bodies of people (especially old people) who just walked up into the mountains to die in peace. Unfortunately this sort of unofficial euthanasia wastes a lot of police time and resources, and is much harsher on the people who want to die, plus it can easily be used to conceal a crime. It would be far kinder to just let them pop down to the local drug store for an overdose.

  • 4

    Frank Thornton

    My son is autistic and he wears a Road ID with his name, address and a message... "I'm autistict. Please call my parents at XXX-OOOO. Thank You!!"

  • -3

    tmarie

    Road ID bracelets or why not fingerprint folks? If it's okay for the foreigner, surely the public wouldn't have a problem with the elderly getting their taken at the first signs of dementia or say past 70 years old, right?

  • 1

    diane fears

    We have people here in America who has dementia who has walk away from nursing homes and was found dead by railroad tracks as well creeks,the family has let the police ad well as the news madia know.It is a shame when you lose your Memory and no one can help diane fears

  • 0

    jpntdytmrow

    July 1, a.m. at our train station, crossing area, an elderly woman made a "calculated jump" infront of the oncoming train. Said to have been a suicide by all who witnessed it. Was it dementia, wandering off, or in order to be that exact, she had to know the train schedule and the direction and timing to jump. Can only imagine what led to that and or what the family has to go through in ways of legal retribution to the train company, the police, investigators, the firemen and their equipment, and so on, not to mention the funeral services and so on. But, there are loud speaker announcements of missing people from care facilities in the area at least twice a year.

  • -2

    Tessa

    But, there are loud speaker announcements of missing people from care facilities in the area at least twice a year.

    You must live in the boonies, then. A student of mine from a small town in Wakayama told me the same thing. Not lost child announcements, but lost grannies!

  • 2

    SwissToni

    Himajin, many thanks for your thoughts, most appreciated.

  • 1

    Balefire

    I spend about half of every week in Kumagaya, extreme northern Saitama near the Gunma border. It's pretty rural, with a population of 200,000 or so, but it's a transportation hub for the area and has mixed residential, industrial park, and agricultural areas...so it's "the boonies" in a manner of speaking, but by no means a remote mountain hamlet.

    Nevertheless, there are city-wide PA announcements on an almost daily basis about some poor soul with dementia who has wandered off--sometimes from homes and sometimes from care centers--giving descriptions and asking for reports of sightings. I always pay attention and keep an eye out when I'm driving, just in case I might be able to spot the missing people. I haven't been of help yet, but I try to keep alert.

    Some of those reported are surprisingly young, still in their 60s or even younger. Physically, they'd often be quite capable of riding a bicycle, which greatly extends the range they could go and, unfortunately, the trouble they could encounter. As has been mentioned above, hitch-hiking is a very real possibility, too.

    If they are found, there's an announcement of that, too, but unfortunately I hear many more "lost" than "found" announcements. I hope that it's just that people don't always report it when they find a friend or relative, but I'm not terribly sanguine about it.

  • 0

    Himajin

    You're welcome. FIL had Alzheimer's and MIL has Lewy Body dementia so we've had our share of determined escapes, it's stressful. Take care.

  • 1

    avigator

    If I start feeling those symptoms, I will get me a bracelet with information about who to contact in case I cannot find my way back home. Not something I would wish to anybody.

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