Evacuated Nursing Home Residents in Japan, from Reuters

Only a few days after a devastating earthquake affected northeast Japan, it is becoming clear that the events of 11 March may have overwhelmingly impacted older adults.  This unfortunate reality is the result of a combination of both demographics and the fact that the elderly did not count with the necessary help to quickly flee the earthquake and tsunami affected zones.

Japan is widely known to be one of the oldest countries in the world.  However, as seen on this ILC Profile of Older Japanese, Japan’s older population is not evenly distributed across the country.  Over the last decades, much of Japan’s youth has slowly left the countryside for jobs in the country’s main cities.   As a result, agricultural regions, such as those affected by the earthquake and tsunami, include some of  Japan’s oldest populations.  Adding to this demographic challenge, media reports are quickly making it apparent that many older Japanese did not have the necessary help to survive the earthquake and the tsunami that followed.

An article in the today’s New York Times highlights just how difficult it was to aide the region’s seniors.  The article tells us the story of Yuta Saga, a 21 year old who had to run with his mother to a local high school in higher ground in an attempt to escape the tsunami’s path.  Upon reaching the school: “Mr. Saga and his mother found the stairs to the roof clogged with older people who appeared unable to muster the strength to climb them. Some were just sitting or lying on the steps.”  The article continues: “[a]s the bottom floor filled with fleeing residents, the wave hit … Then the doors burst open, and the water rushed in.  It was quickly waist level.  Mr. Saga saw one older woman, without the strength or will to stand, sitting in water that rose to her nose.  He said he rushed behind her, grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her up the stairs.  Another person on the stairs grabbed her and lifted her up to another person. The men formed a human chain, lifting the older residents and some children to the top.”  The article concludes by quoting a taxi driver from Natori as stating that “[t]he elderly can’t take care of themselves in a disaster like this … They didn’t stand a chance.”

The United Kingdom’s The Guardian similarly highlights Harumi Watanabe, who had to “stand on furniture, with water up to her neck” in an attempt to save her parents, who could not escape on their own.  The Guardian’s article also interviews Jiro Saito, the head of a local disaster countermeasures committee.  Mr. Saito said: “[t]here are many old people here. We have evacuation drills, but people could not get to the meeting place in time. The tsunami was beyond our expectations. We must reflect on our shortcomings.”  The article concludes that “[m]any of the victims are likely to be elderly people, which could prove one of the defining characteristics of this disaster… Several locals said the young had been able to flee quickly when the tsunami warning was issued, but that older people found it harder to run.”

Unfortunately, the Associated Press shows how even those who survived continue to confront a difficult situation.   Several days after the earthquake, the Senen General Hospital does not have the necessary tools to care for its patients.  “All of [the] food and medicine was stored on the first floor. Everything was ruined or lost in the 30 minutes when Takajo, a small town of about 12,000, was flooded by the tsunami …There is no power or running water, and for the first two days the staff and patients shared some frozen noodles and vegetables they salvaged from a toppled freezer. The nurses have been cutting open soiled intravenous packs and scrubbing down muddy packs of pills with alcohol to cleanse them. A gut-wrenching stench from the bathroom, after several days of waterless use by hundreds of people, was clear from half a building away,” writes AP.

These sad events in Japan accentuate the importance of planning for proper elder care and rescue in emergency situations.  As the world ages over the coming decades, such planning will  become increasingly important.

IAHSA is keeping all of our Japanese members in our thoughts and prayers.  If you wish to help, this link will take you to a list of organizations who are serving in the region.

For more information on the quake’s impact on seniors, take a few minutes and read the following stories:

The New York Times

The Guardian

The Associated Press

The Australian



Le Monde (French Only)