Yamada, Japan. From The Daily Telegraph

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that affected northeastern Japan, we wrote on how the region’s demographics and the nature of the disaster were likely to have an overwhelming impact on Japan’s elderly.  Three weeks after the event, aid and government agencies have widely confirmed this unfortunate reality.  Two recent pieces look at the tragedy’s impact on seniors living in the region surrounding the northeastern town of Yamada, and serve to illustrate the tough choices that lie ahead for them.

Robert Laprade, an international aid worker, wrote about his experience  found upon arriving at the fishing town of Otsuchi, which is located just a few kilometers south of Yamada, on Reuter’s AlertNet.  He described his time there as an “awful excursion into hell”, noting that “[t]his was a fishing area. Those young, agile, and educated enough have long gone to the cities to find better paid work. Only the old ones were left.”   While in Otsuchi, he spoke with two women.  The first, who was digging around the ruins of her home with her husband, noted that, at 60 years old, “she was the youngest around here.”  The second woman “was around 70 years old” and had lost her husband during the tsunami. Laprade writes: “When we approached her, she had just dug a few dishes out and squatted around a plastic bowl where she cleaned them in water. It was cold outside but she wanted to rescue her few little things; it was all that she had left.”

A piece in National Public Radio highlights that this experience is common throughout the region.  It notes that “all [affected seniors] want to go home. But there is no home anymore.” The piece also draws attention to the difficult choices that lie ahead as the region is reconstructed.  It quotes Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan as proposing that the region is rebuilt by building homes “on higher ground by leveling mountainous areas, with residents commuting to fishing ports and fisheries along the coast.”  Other ideas suggested have been raising the seawalls that protect low-lying towns or relocating the populations away from the tsunami zone.  However, John Traphagan, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, note that all of this “would be easier said than done.”  He notes that “the emotional dislocation of moving elders away from their communities would be profound.”  “They’ve lived their whole lives in that same place, and that’s where they want to live and that’s where they want to die,” he adds.

Take a few minutes to listen to NPR piece and read the AlertNet article.  What choices are available to Japanese seniors who have lost all of their belonging, have limited incomes and are often frail and alone?  What steps can be taken to improve to effectively serve and protect them?  Has your community had to provide for the elderly after a devastating event?  How was that achieved?

NPR Audio: In Tsunami’s Wake, Tough Choices For Japan’s Elderly


Want to help?  This link will take you to a list of organizations who are serving in the region.