'Restaurant of Order Mistakes’ fosters empathy for dementia patients, as elderly numbers climb

A dementia patient serves guests during the first pop-up run of the Restaurant Of Order Mistakes in June. The concept returned for a second run this weekend.

TOKYO - At a pop-up restaurant in upmarket Roppongi this weekend, visitors who ask for soup could get a salad while those who order a hamburger might instead be served pasta.

There should, however, be no complaints at what is quirkily known as the Restaurant Of Order Mistakes.

Its team of wait staff comprises 17 dementia patients, and executive committee member Shiro Oguni, a television producer, has said of his hopes to foster a spirit of tolerance, empathy and acceptance towards dementia patients.

This is the three-day pop-up affair's second run, following the success of the first event in June. A limited number of tickets has been set aside for walk-in customers, although the bulk of it is reserved for donors in an online fund-raiser which won nearly 5 million yen (S$60,700) more than the targeted 8 million yen.

The event ends Monday (Sept 18) as Japan celebrates, as a public holiday, a day it has christened Respect For The Aged Day.

Estimates show that already one in five senior citizens in Japan suffer from dementia, and their numbers are still set to rise as the nation grapples with an ageing population.

Japan defines its elderly as those aged 65 and above.

The Statistics Bureau, in its annual update released Sunday (Sept 17) in line with Respect For The Aged Day, noted that the proportion of elderly to the total population stands at 27.7 per cent. The figure, already a record high, is projected to reach 35.3 per cent by 2040.

Meanwhile, the data also showed that the numbers of those who are aged 90 years and above have crossed the 2 million mark for the first time.

Japan's life expectancy, as of last year, was 87.1 years for women and 81 years for men.

Last Friday (Sept 15), Japan's Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry noted that the number of centenarians - or those aged 100 years and above - has risen to a record 67,824 people. Nearly nine in 10 of them are women.

Japan's oldest woman, Ms Nabi Tajima, 117, was born in August 1900 in Kagoshima in the south-west. Its oldest man, Mr Masazo Nonaka, 112, hails from northern Hokkaido and was born in July 1905.

Meanwhile, nearly 12 per cent of Japan's workforce are seniors who choose not to retire. Most Japanese firms require full-timers to retire at 60, with the option of extending for another five years on a contractual basis with reduced terms.

Yet their numbers, too, are set to rise as the elderly look for ways to spend their time while seeking to supplement their household income.

Some 7.7 million seniors continue to be employed - or 11.9 per cent of the total workforce. Three-quarters of them are doing either part-time or contractual work.

Amid the gloomy population trends, a committee of experts from the Japan Gerontological Society and the Japan Geriatrics Society are calling on Tokyo to add 10 years to its definition of what it means to be an elderly.

By redefining "elderly" as those aged 75 and above, Dr Yasuyoshi Ouchi, 68, told a recent briefing, would acknowledge the "rejuvenation" of Japan's seniors physically and intellectually given better healthcare as well as nutrition and sanitation standards.

But this plan has had its critics who are concerned that any increase in the age definition for an elderly would, too, delay pension payouts and affect the numbers of those who receive social security assistance.

Sociologist Emi Kataoka of Tokyo's Komazawa University told The Straits Times: "An old man who is able to work will have to continue to pay taxes, and if the plan is realised, it means a shift towards a system where social security support in the ultra-ageing society will be propped up by other elderly."

She said social safety nets must be enhanced before such a plan is considered, adding: "There is also the risk that pension annuities are not paid out until 75, leaving those aged between 65 and 74 who are ill or unable to work in limbo."

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