26/05/2013 19:23 BST | Updated 26/07/2013 06:12 BST

Dementia Friendly Fujinomiya


In the shadow of iconic snow-capped Mount Fuji, a group of five shopkeepers meet to discuss how best to keep their town centre alive in the face of competition from out of town shopping malls and the buying power - and prices - the national chains can command that the local stores simply can't match.

That first meeting was over 10 years ago and the fact that I could join their meeting in April 2013 shows that they must have found a formula that keeps them in business, if not prosperous. The answer lies in valuing their customers. As Mrs Masula, chair of the Association explained, their customers are very local and elderly. They used to be supported by extended families across two or three generations, but all too often the elderly are now alone as children and grandchildren move away.

On June 16 2000, they held a one-off open day where the shop keepers came together to promote their stores and provide information and support for their customers. That one-off event has now become a monthly fixture on the 16th of each month. With around two-thirds of their customers over 60, the shopkeepers association have also seen the effect of dementia on everyday lives. So for the last three years they've been holding workshops to learn about how best to support people with dementia. It's their part of the Japanese version of England's 'Dementia Friends' programme where information sessions help everyone be understanding to those with dementia living alongside them. In Japan over 4million people have attended these sessions over the last eight years. In Fujinomiya, the shopkeepers have helped their neighbours with dementia carry on living in their own homes and the monthly shopper days include dementia information stalls. Stores display in their window a sticker that shows they are 'elderly and dementia friendly'. In some cases they have even been the first stage in getting people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia diagnosed, signposting their customers to professional help.

For now, there is a comforting programme of mutual benefit between the storekeepers and their customers who have dementia. But tough financial times and changing shopping habits make it increasingly hard to keep the small stores going. Part of the success of the Dementia Friends programme is that the big stores are now also realising that it's good business to be dementia friendly. Aeon, Japan's Tesco, have signed up to the programme and just out of Fujinomiya there's a big franchise drug store who have also signed up to be dementia friendly. The Manageress told me the company give time off to attend the information sessions. Small but important changes have now taken place in store. If a person with dementia is taking a long time at the checkout, then another till will be opened so the queue of potentially irritated customers is moved. The store also picks up on people who might have dementia buying abnormal drug supplies.

As in England, becoming dementia friendly is catching on across government, businesses and wider society. That's good news for people with dementia and their carers. On home turf, the Dementia Friends initiative inspired by the pioneering work in Japan is gaining speed. Our ambition is for a million people to attend an awareness session and take action on dementia. In three months from launch almost 9,000 people have already signed up.

Defeating dementia won't just happen in a lab or in a care setting. We need a step change in the way people think, talk and act about the condition and all of society has a role to play. Find out how you can get involved by visiting