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.