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What Japan is doing to fight older generation's post-tsunami isolation

Support centers that offer activities are part of plans by Japan's government and aid agencies to head off isolation among the elderly struggling in the wake of the March tsunami.

By Winifred BirdCorrespondent / October 17, 2011



On a recent rainy morning, three people sit chatting in the Wanokko House Support Center for disaster victims in Japan’s Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture. There was Nisaburo Sasaki, a karaoke-loving, costume-jewelry-wearing retired steel worker; Shigeru Kanahama, a bonsai enthusiast; and staff member Akiko Sasaki, a middle-aged nurse.

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The group likely wouldn’t have gathered before the tsunami swept away their town in March 2011. But now the two men, who live in temporary housing units nearby, meet at the center most days.

Over 300,000 people were temporarily or permanently displaced last spring after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami struck the island nation. Japan’s elderly population was hard hit, and remains one of the most vulnerable groups among disaster victims. With limited mobility and shrinking support networks, many elderly Japanese find themselves isolated and alone seven months after the tsunami devastated their communities.

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Equipped with exercise machines, baths, kitchens, and friendly staff, support centers like the one in Iwate Prefecture are part of plans by government agencies and aid organizations to stave off isolation and depression among the elderly.

“I don’t have any friends here, except this guy,” says Mr. Kanahama, giving his quiet companion a pat on the back.

In order to move disaster victims out of cramped communal shelters several months after the tsunami, municipal governments assigned temporary housing through a lottery system. Victims were moved and spread out across each municipality, losing ties to their neighborhoods along the way. A shortage of centrally-located flat land on which to build temporary housing units after the tsunami meant many elderly survivors not only found themselves living far from friends, but also from amenities like shops, clinics, and town halls.

“The older generation has been through a lot,” says Ruth Campbell, a visiting scholar at Tokyo University’s Institute of Gerontology. This includes war, poverty, and previous tsunamis. “A lot of them are very strong and resilient, but for some, the more losses they sustain, the more difficult it is for them to keep their wellbeing,” says Ms. Campbell, a retired geriatric social worker.

Community ties

For Nisaburo Sasaki, the support center is one of his few remaining ties to society. A widower of seven years, he lost one son in the tsunami and doesn’t see his other two children often. His former neighborhood friends are scattered across town. The nurse, Akiko Sasaki says he likes to drink. She’s found him passed out alone in his room on several occasions.

“I’m keeping an eye on him. I think he’d be at risk if it weren’t for this place,” she says.

It’s too early to assess how widespread the problems of depression and social isolation are, says John Campbell, also a researcher at the Institute of Gerontology. Prefectural officials haven’t compiled statistics on how many elderly are living alone in temporary housing or in their own partially damaged homes.

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