Sunday, 28 December 2014

In greying Japan, helping elderly is all part of the service

Companies realise that caring for older customers is good for business
The Straits Times, 27 Dec 2014

TOKYO - They would enter the bank and ask for their cash.

Ms Yuriko Asahara, behind the counter, would watch where they would stash it - in the side pocket of a handbag or perhaps deep down in a shoulder bag.

Ms Asahara was not spying. She knew she would 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.

An estimated eight million people in Japan have dementia or show signs of developing it.

By 2060, 40 per cent of Japanese will be over 65, up from 24 per cent today, according to the 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 Ms Asahara, a former branch manager at Japan Post Holdings, the country's biggest holder of bank deposits.

"Gradually, I learnt 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.

As about 520,000 elderly people are on waiting lists for placement, many have no occupation but spend their days wandering in shopping malls and making trips to the banks to check their savings.

Companies are encouraging workers like Ms Asahara, 64, who retired this year, to help the forgetful elderly navigate their stores. The push stems partly from a sense of civic duty. It is also a realisation that helping seniors is good for business.

The market for goods and services purchased by seniors reached 100 trillion yen (S$1.1 trillion) in 2012, according to NLI Research Institute in Tokyo.

Corporations' move to target elderly customers is part of a nationwide phenomenon to reckon with a greying 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's programme, which began in 2007, has trained about 10 per cent 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 Ms Haruko Kanamaru, general manager of social affairs at Aeon.

The focus on seniors is "a large portion of our business strategy", Ms Kanamaru said. "We are improving services handling troubled elderly customers."

More than a dozen customers needed extensive assistance at Ms Asahara's bank branch, the former manager said.

She and her colleagues spent hours helping those clients find lost passbooks, reset PINs for ATMs, and understand their utility bills.

Many elderly clients were obsessed with money, Ms Asahara said.

One woman, now in her 80s, constantly lost track of withdrawals from the time Ms Asahara took the job 20 years ago.

When the national programme, called the Dementia Support Caravan, was launched in 2005, apartment managers were the first to join.

They were dealing with tenants who complained about elderly neighbours banging the wrong doors, failing to sort their rubbish, stealing newspapers and rubbing human waste on communal walls, said Ms Hiroko Sugawara, who runs the programme.

Demand for such training is rising across corporate Japan.

Now that Ms Asahara has retired, her son Takushi Asahara, 36, who joined Japan Post a couple of years ago, has taken over her position.

"At first I used to think the branch should focus on expanding the business, rather than spend so much time dealing with the elderly with troubles," said Mr Asahara.

"I learnt I was wrong. We must take good care of them for our survival."


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