An elderly woman walks past an umbrella shop in Tokyo. Yuriko Nakao/Reuters

Stickers with QR codes are just one innovation in a multi-pronged plan to serve the aging population.

In 2015, a record 12,208 Japanese people with dementia were reported missing. While most who wandered off were found, around 500 were eventually discovered deceased. Today there are approximately five million people who suffer from dementia in Japan, a number estimated to jump to seven million, or one in five people over the age of 65, by 2025.  

This month, the city of Iruma, north of Tokyo, launched a free service to help find residents who have strayed. A local company developed one-inch waterproof QR code stickers that can be affixed to a person’s fingernails or toenails. The stickers last about two weeks before deteriorating. The idea is that if a person is disoriented and lost, police can easily obtain their personal information, such as an address and telephone number, by scanning the sticker’s code.

This might sound a little creepy or even dystopian, but it’s a practice that’s fairly common among this subset of the population. Related products, such as shoes equipped with a GPS device that send a family member a message if the wearer leaves a set area, are used in Japan and elsewhere. In North America and Europe, companies have marketed wristbands with GPS tracking for people with dementia.

James Tiessen, an expert on Japanese healthcare at Ryerson University in Toronto, describes a host of other devices that help monitor and care for Japan’s elderly. There’s even a teapot sensor that transmits an alert to a family member’s cell phone if tea hasn’t been made in some time. “People in Japan usually drink several pots of green tea a day,” Tiessen says. “If an elderly person’s teapot hasn’t been used in a while, it can mean that something’s wrong.” Other technological fixes include robots that perform tasks such as fetching food or turning on lights, or furry robotic seals that provide comfort.  

A woman holds a therapeutic seal robot in a Japanese retirement home. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters)

Such inventions are part of a broader Japanese government strategy that is taking on one of the country’s biggest challenges: a rapidly aging population. Japan is already the world’s oldest society, and by 2035, one in three of its citizens will be 65 or over. (The current ratio is about one in four of a population of around 127 million.)

With dementia sufferers a growing segment of this aging population, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration issued a plan in early 2015 that provides a framework for the country to cope with the condition. The “New Orange Plan” set aside increased funding and called for such measures as better early detection methods, more effective drugs, and enhanced cooperation among the medical and care professions.

The plan also encouraged initiatives at the neighborhood, town, and city levels to create awareness of those with cognitive problems—including educating younger people on how to care for them. One program, for instance, brings people with dementia to schools to foster understanding of the condition.

Tiessen says that this multi-pronged approach, in which technological aids such as the QR code stickers are developed in tandem with more effective medical interventions and growing community involvement, is what makes Japan a global leader in managing aging and dementia.

“The government understands there’s no single answer to dealing with an aging society,” he says. “It’s trying and evaluating a large number of initiatives that we can learn from—because while Western societies may not be aging as quickly, they’re aging, too.”

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