Japan is using QR stickers to track down the elderly

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Story highlights

  • A Japanese company is making tiny QR code stickers that can be worn by the elderly
  • Scanning the codes will provide information such as their name and address
  • Among Japan's rapidly aging population, up to 4.6 million people suffer from dementia

Japan (CNN)Some people microchip their pets to ensure they're easily found when lost, but now a city in Japan wants to apply a similar approach to their elderly -- and they're turning to QR code stickers instead of microchips.

Officials in Iruma, near Tokyo, are supplying tiny waterproof QR code stickers to families with elderly relatives at risk of wandering away from their homes and getting lost.
The QR stickers -- which last about a month -- can be stuck onto a fingernail or carried around on a key holder.
    If the program is broadened to the whole country, people who come across a disoriented member of the elderly population could scan their stickers with their smartphones, using and app, and find out the wearer's registration number, their hometown and the telephone number of their city hall.
    It's hoped the current program in Iruma city will connect a missing person to their family more easily.

    Potential lifesaver

    Though this might sound like a worrying extension of a Big Brother state, it could save lives in a country with a rapidly aging population, where as many as 4.6 million people live with dementia.
    Chie Sano, a spokeswoman from Iruma city's welfare department, said the issue of elderly people going missing in Japan is a problem the city is keen on tackling.
    Iruma, with its population of 39,500, already has roughly 3,000 elderly residents with dementia, according to Sano, and it's hoped this community-oriented initiative will ensure that they are cared for, wherever they may end up.

    Concerns over privacy

    Iruma has previously rented out small GPS devices for families who want to keep track of errant elderly relatives. However, those devices didn't work, as old people often forgot to take them with them when they left the house, Sano said.
    Ten families have signed up since city officials launched the sticker program November 1. Iruma expects 35 more families to sign up by March.
    While the visible QR codes raise significant privacy concerns -- as theoretically anyone with a QR reader app could scan them -- Sano added that Iruma was careful with personal information, leaving out a person's name and address but putting a system in place to get them home.
    Even the police, for example, must always go through the city council to obtain such information.
    "We only provide the minimum information with the police, so that the missing can reunite with their families as soon as possible," she said.
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    Yukiko Sano, a spokeswoman from Orange Links, the company that developed the QR code sticker, said she'd developed the sticker because often when a missing old person is found, it's hard to know whether they have any pressing medical needs.
    The QR code stickers, she said, allowed the police to save time -- and potentially lives.