(Bloomberg) — They would enter the bank and ask for their cash. Yuriko Asahara, behind the counter, would check where they would stash it — in the side pocket of a handbag or perhaps deep down in a shoulder bag.
Asahara wasn’t spying. She knew she’d have to remind them within an hour or two. Many of her clients suffered from dementia, and over two decades the bank manager became a self-taught expert in the disease.
Globally, an estimated 44.4 million people suffer from dementia and the figure is projected to triple to 135.5 million in 2050 as the population ages, Alzheimer’s Disease International estimates. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in Japan, where an estimated 8 million people have dementia or show signs of developing it. By 2060, 40 percent of Japanese will be over 65, up from 24 percent today, according to National Institute of Population and Social Security Research.
“At first I didn’t understand why they would lose things so many times in a day and I got frustrated,” said Asahara, a former branch manager at Japan Post Holdings Co., the country’s biggest holder of bank deposits. “Gradually, I learned to look them in the eyes and to be sensitive about what could be occupying their minds.”
The Japanese government, faced with record debt, is raising premiums and reducing access to state-funded nursing homes. With about 520,000 elderly on waiting lists for placement, many spend their days wandering in shopping malls and making trips to their banks to check their savings.
Companies are encouraging workers like Asahara, 64, who retired this year, to help forgetful elderly navigate their stores. The push stems partly from a sense of civic duty. It’s also a realization that helping seniors is good for business. The market for goods and services purchased by seniors reached 100 trillion yen ($830 billion) in 2012, according to NLI Research Institute in Tokyo.
Corporations targeting elderly business is part a nationwide phenomenon to reckon with a graying Japan. About 5.4 million people, from apartment managers to bank employees, retailers and even children, have taken a government-funded course to learn about dementia and how best to behave with people who show signs of the disease.
Aeon Co.’s program, which began in 2007, has trained about 10 percent of the retailer’s 400,000 employees. Clerks who once scolded customers for opening food packages and for eating without paying are learning to show more empathy, said Haruko Kanamaru, general manager of social affairs at Aeon.
The focus on seniors is “a large portion of our business strategy,” Kanamaru said. “We are improving services handling troubled elderly customers.”
Japan’s government-backed training program has inspired the U.K. to pursue a similar tack, said Jeremy Hughes, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Society, a London-based charity group. Although a leader in dementia treatment, the U.K. began an educational program called “dementia friends” only last year, aiming for 1 million people by 2015.
While the U.S. has no national plan to educate citizens, some communities are running local programs. In Watertown, Wisconsin, the “Dementia Friendly Campaign” started last year gives free educational session to residents and business owners. In Minnesota, a state-wide advocacy group, Act on Alzheimer’s, created toolkits to guide communities to become dementia friendly.
Many developed countries’ leaders have pledged to combat dementia, emphasizing community-based care. In December last year, the Group of Eight nations set a goal of finding a cure for dementia or a way of modifying the disease’s course by 2025.
“There’s an understanding that we shouldn’t lock people up,” said Marc Wortmann, executive director at Alzheimer’s Disease International. Instead, communities should “try to integrate them and keep them in societies.”
More than a dozen customers needed extensive assistance at Asahara’s bank branch, the former manager said. She and five colleagues learned to be patient and to listen.