Japan's elderly suffer hardest shock from earthquake

Posted in Japan | 20-Jul-07 | Author: Martin Fackler| Source: International Herald Tribune

Takeji Tanabe, 81, who uses a cane because he is partly paralyzed, says the shelter at Hisumi Elementary School in Kashiwazaki has done all it can to help older earthquake survivors. But he says it is hard for him to stand in meal lines and he wants more privacy than the school gym provides.

KASHIWAZAKI, Japan: When a large aftershock suddenly shook a crowded elementary school gymnasium on Wednesday, sending those inside scurrying in confusion, Chizuko Shimizu, 75, sat marooned on her blanket, unable to stand without help.

She had been immobilized after breaking two ribs and cutting a foot during a powerful earthquake Monday that damaged homes across this northwestern city, driving her and some 450 other residents to the gym for shelter.

In her pain on the hardwood floor, sleep comes only with help from painkillers given by a visiting doctor. She relies on her son and brother-in-law to bring her meals, and to carry her to the portable toilets lined up outside.

"The earthquake hurt a lot of old people because we couldn't move fast enough to escape," Shimizu said Wednesday, sitting among groups of people camped out on the gym floor. "It's hard for old people after the earthquake is over, too."

Earthquakes have long been a fact of life in natural disaster-prone Japan, but the tremors this week exposed a growing challenge for the nation's crisis planners. All 10 of the people killed, and many of the thousands left homeless, were older than 65, reflecting the rising vulnerability of one of the world's most rapidly aging societies.

Like much of the rest of rural Japan, Kashiwazaki has grayed in recent years, as falling birthrates and an exodus by job-seekers to big cities like Tokyo has reduced the number of young people. According to city statistics, more than one in four of Kashiwazaki's 93,500 residents are now over 65. (By contrast, about one in eight Americans is over 65, according to United Nations statistics.)

So when the magnitude-6.8 earthquake struck Monday morning, it hit a city with a large population of retirees, who are less able than younger residents to survive disasters, or cope with the trauma of their aftermath, earthquake experts and city officials say. They say they are discovering that an aging population may require broad changes in strategies for helping survivors, including providing easily digestible foods like soup and rice porridge, and finding shelter that offers more privacy and specialized care.

"Before, we just thought in terms of throwing survivors a blanket and finding them space to lie down in a hallway or gym," said Masaki Takahashi, director of the elderly care section in Kashiwazaki's city hall. "But with older folks, it is not that simple. They can't take care of themselves."

Takahashi said his office was still tallying how many empty beds and how much open floor space were available at the city's retirement homes, hotels and other places that could accommodate older refugees who were ill or had special needs. He said the city wanted to begin moving these refugees out of its regular shelters soon but had been too overwhelmed by the disaster to do so.

This was not the first time this part of Japan has received a warning about the growing vulnerability of its aging population. In 2004, a deadly earthquake in a nearby part of Niigata Prefecture killed 67, including 43 people over 65. The next year, snowstorms in Niigata killed 32 people, 25 of them older residents.

Elsewhere in Japan, most of those killed in an earthquake in March on the Noto Peninsula and in a typhoon this month in Kyushu were also older, government statistics show.

"The question is whether Japan has learned the lessons from disasters like the 2004 earthquake," said Takehiko Yamamura, director of the Disaster Prevention System Institute, a private research group based in Tokyo. "This most recent earthquake should be a warning that it has not."

Most of those who perished this week in Kashiwazaki were living in homes they had inhabited for decades, mostly rickety old wooden structures with heavy tile roofs that collapsed on top of them. Worse, most also lived alone or with a spouse who was also older, which in some cases meant critical hours passed before anyone realized they were missing.

Older survivors could also face potentially deadly problems, earthquake experts say. The biggest could be the physical and emotional strain of suddenly living in shelters, unfamiliar and crowded new environments. More than a third of the dead from the 2004 Niigata earthquake were older residents in shelters who died from stress, Niigata Prefecture records show.

Keiko Koami, 80, of Kashiwazaki, said she took her bedridden husband to a shelter at a nearby middle school after the earthquake damaged her home on Monday. But the only food at the shelter was rice balls, which her husband, 81, could not eat because a stroke two years ago made it difficult for him to chew. They also had no privacy.

"It was impossible for me to care for him at the refugee shelter," she said. "I had to find somewhere else."

She said she drove him to a local retirement home, where she hoped to find the specialized care he needed. Her husband is now one of 67 mostly bedridden older people sleeping on cots and futons in the home's lobby and meeting rooms, tended by its overstretched staff.

But while that home is overflowing with walk-in refugees, the Kujiranami Special Care Home two miles away remains nearly empty. Its director, Fumihiko Yajima, said the city had not started to move older refugees from big shelters to homes like his.

"It's a waste," he said. "We could help more people, but they don't send us any."

At the gym in Hisumi Elementary School, where Shimizu, the woman with the broken ribs, sought refuge, workers have begun serving soup for older refugees.

Takeji Tanabe, 81, who stands with a cane because a stroke eight years ago paralyzed part of his lower body, said the shelter had been doing all it could to help him and other older residents.

But he said that it was hard for him to stand in long lines for every meal and that he was growing weary of the lack of privacy in the gym. Still, he said, he had no idea how long he would have to stay there, because the earthquake had knocked over all of the furniture in his house and he could not lift it alone.

"Disasters like this make the problems of the aging society become very clear," said Hikoichi Araki, a city councilman who was helping to oversee the Hisumi Elementary School shelter. "Many elderly need help even in normal times. In a natural disaster, they become completely helpless."