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Health Ministry eyes mutual support subsidy program for people with dementia

TOKYO -- The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare has begun to consider introducing a subsidy program to support people with dementia helping one another, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

The plan is designed to help alleviate the anxiety often felt by such people shortly after their initial diagnosis of cognitive impairment -- when their condition is not yet serious, but when support options are limited. Ministry officials expect a mutual support system linking these patients would allow them to live on their own at their homes or other locations. Discussions are underway to incorporate the subsidy program in the ministry's fiscal 2019 budget request.

Many people go through a period of shock when they are diagnosed with dementia, and some patients tend to retreat into their homes and worry about the future. During this time, however, their condition is still not serious, and nursing insurance coverage for services such as consultations and other welfare programs is limited if the patient has no serious physical problems. Experts say programs are needed to support people with dementia and their families during this initial phase.

The health ministry therefore decided to consider subsidizing peer support programs for people after diagnosis. Similar programs led by groups concerned are already available for people with mental illnesses, alcoholism and difficult-to-cure diseases.

There are patient groups and local governments that already offer such mutual care services for people with dementia. The Mitoyo Municipal Nishikagawa Hospital in the western Japan prefecture of Kagawa has employed a part-time staff member with dementia who consults outpatients with similar conditions weekly. People use the service to sort out their complex feelings following their dementia diagnosis, or to ask about how to return their driver's license.

An official in charge of the hospital program emphasized the effectiveness of peer counseling, saying, "Some patients, who were sullen at the beginning, start crying as the counseling progresses, and by the time they go home they seem to feel better."

The ministry believes that mutual support is especially effective in easing concerns felt by patients shortly after diagnosis, and would like to spread the program through subsidies. It intends to subsidize prefectural governments as the operators of the program, and allow them to commission the operation of the program to local municipal governments, social welfare corporations and nonprofit organizations. Ministry subsidies are estimated to cover expenses such as the cost for securing consulting locations and office supplies.

Some 4.62 million people were estimated to have a cognitive impairment related to dementia in fiscal 2012, and the number is expected to reach up to 7.3 million in 2025, when all postwar baby boomers reach age 75 or older, according to a survey by a health ministry research team.

(Japanese original by Hiroyuki Harada, Medical Welfare News Department)

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