As I step onto the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Sendai, I have no idea that today will be the most moving day of my trip to Japan so far.
On our way to Group Home Natsgino, I see where the earthquake and Tsunami of 11 March 2011 hit this town by the sea. There are now many green fields and rice fields, where houses once stood. I remember vividly the news reports from the tsunami but it is only by being here that I can appreciate the magnitude of this tragic event.
Arriving at Group Home Natsgino
We are met at the door of the Group Home by a big smile from the Director Mr Ryoko Yomogida and we exchange shoes for slippers at the door. I smile as Mr Yabuki who has organised and is accompanying me on this trip fits his size 10 feet into size 7 slippers. We walk through to the office area where we are met by Mr Kazuk Okuyama, the manager of the group home. The table is set beautifully with ceramic cups and saucers with green tea, biscuits, information leaflets and photographs. We exchange business cards and make our formal introductions.
Devastation of the Tsunami
As Mr Yomogida and Mr Okuyama tell me about the the Tsunami and show me photographs of its devastating impact, I feel deeply moved. This group home, which at that time was 2 years old, was completely demolished. They tell me that all the group home residents were evacuated when the earthquake started, some went to the other branch of the group home facility and the others went to the local school. The school was then hit by the tsunami and 7 people from the group home died as they were unble to run to escape. The 11 remaining residents lived at the other branch of the group home until temporary accommodation could be built. This meant that 29 people were living in a group home designed for 18. Residents had to share rooms designed for individuals, in some cases 4 people in the same room. This situation impacted on people’s general health and their dementia symptoms.
After 6 months, the temporary accommodation was ready and with the support of local volunteers and family members, everyone was moved on the same day. The situation had a negative impact as people’s daily living and environment was now different. New people with dementia, whose family had been killed in the Tsunami had also joined the group home. There was now a drive to re-connect people with the local community. Since moving into the new premises this connection with the community has been ever strengthened. A garden plot has been established and people from the group home along with people from the community grow and pick vegetables together. Since March 2014, staff from the group home and key people from the community meet every 2 months to share progress and the vision of the group home.
The Orange cafe
An ‘Orange cafe’ has been established. It was felt that a ‘dementia cafe’ was not the right term as this was about bring people together from the group home and the community together, regardless of whether they had dementia. People attending could in the future be affected by dementia and so having this connection and familiarity with the group home could equip them for the future. The local authority provides transport for people unable to get there on their own. This acts as a safety mechanism as, for example if the person doesn’t answer the door they can check that the person is ok. This is beneficial as many elderly people are living on their own, particularly as a result to the tsunami, so this is a way to integrate them into the community again. Later in my tour of the group home I see the room where the Orange cafe is held on a monthly basis. This is a lovely bright room with light wooden flooring, dual aspect windows and a balcony looking over the green fields and vegetable plot. Attendees pay a nominal fee of 100 yen (50p) but there is no strict rule about payment, this is just a small contribution to tea and cake but importantly it creates a sense of responsibility from staff and the public to attend.
I see photographs demonstrating the types of individualised activities which the group home residents enjoy. Due to the size of the home (18 residents) the staff are very familiar with their previous occupations, where they have travelled, their likes, dislikes and of course their families. The first photograph is of a man cutting a fish. Mr Okuyama tells me that this man used to be a fisherman and so staff went to the fish market and brought him back a fish for him to cut, clean and cook and they all enjoyed eating this together. Another photograph is of a few ladies at the florist shop and they are making a floral arrangement, another photograph shows a lady cooking and another shows a man holding a ‘para chan’ (the robot seal). I have heard about this therapeutic intervention so it is great to finally meet the para chan and see it in action. All of the activities and therapeutic interventions are tailored to what is important to the person. There is no schedule of pre-planned activities. Even the Orange cafe activities are planned by the attendees based on what they would like to do, the only thing that is set is the date so people know when to come and flyers are disseminated locally to advertise this.
Meeting the residents
I could talk to Mr Yomogida and Mr Okuyama all day but time is limited and I am keen to meet the people living in the group home. As I walk through to the open plan dining area I am blown away by what I see and hear. Everyone is sitting around a large table with welcome banners and hand painted (by the residents) Scottish flags. They are singing Auld Lang Syne to me in Japanese and they have the most beautiful smiles. After composing myself I tell them that they have made my day. I am introduced to everyone and I talk to a 105 year old lady. She speaks excellent English as she used to live in New York. This lady has seen a lot in her lifetime – World War II, earthquakes and the tsunami and yet she holds my hand, looks deep into my eyes with a lovely smile and says “I am so happy”. My heart melts!
I feel so privileged to have visited this group home and met such amazingly resilient leaders, staff and residents. Despite the tragedies of 2011, there is so much positivity and happiness. For me this is the utopia of dementia care – such compassion, person centredness and resilience shines through.
Thank you to Mr Yabuki (Dementia Research and Training centre, Sendai) for arranging such an amazing day.