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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.

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The government-funded Wano Support Center is one of about 12 support centers opened on temporary housing sites in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima – ­the three prefectures hit hardest by the disaster – so far. But with 63 planned support centers still not completed by late September, many survivors over the age of 65 don’t have anywhere similar to go.

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“This is the countryside and people tend to help each other out, but their communities have been destroyed,” says Takashi Yamamoto, director of the Peace Boat Volunteer Center in Ishinomaki city, located in Miyagi Prefecture.

Communities in small villages are less likely to receive public services such as support centers, he says. Peace Boat is one of the most active NGOs in Ishinomaki and recently began publishing a free paper to help build community ties among temporary housing residents.

Government officials and NGOs are well aware of the risks that isolation entails. Following a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in Kobe in 1995, a number of elderly survivors died alone in temporary housing units. Public, private, and nonprofit organizations say they are determined not to let that happen again.

What Japan is doing for it's older population

Japan has a universal long-term healthcare system, which means that even in remote areas elderly disaster victims are eligible for affordable day-care and health services. Some may even have more family support than before the tsunami because younger relatives are out of work and available to stay at home all day. But as months go by, many young people are forced to leave devastated coastal towns for economic reasons.

In September, a 65-year-old man committed suicide in a temporary housing unit in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, stoking fears that support projects may not be moving fast enough or reaching the residents of the nearly 50,000 temporary houses built so far. The man, who lived alone, was not found until relatives came for a visit about a week after he died, police said. Japan has the highest suicide rate in the world.

To reach those who can’t or don’t actively seek out support, the Japan National Council of Social Welfare is launching a 600-million-yen ($7.8 million) government-funded project. Support staff will go door to door at every temporary housing unit in the disaster area, and follow up with services, says Atsuo Shibuya, the organization’s policy planning director.

Ruth Campbell, who studied what happened to elderly in temporary housing after the Kobe earthquake, agrees that long-term programs are needed.

“In the beginning [in Kobe] there were lots of volunteers. The real risk came about a year later. People had so little contact with relatives. It had to do with family relationships breaking down,” she says.

Since then, awareness of the emotional needs of the elderly has grown greatly in Japan, she says. But to help prevent the same thing from happening in Tohoku, both public and private groups will need to stay focused on the issue for years to come.

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