Older people and natural disasters: the Japanese tsunami

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The recent tsunami that hit Japan represents one of the deadliest natural disasters of our recent times. With a death toll of over 10,000 and 13,000 people still missing{1}, Japan’s population has been tragically affected by this disaster. Japan’s demographic profile, which makes it the fastest ageing country in the world, means that the impact of the earthquake and the tsunami will expose a lot of older people to severe risks. The Guardian reported that 128 older patients were abandoned in a hospital in the area of the Fukushima nuclear plant, leading to the death of 14 of them and 11 residents of a retirement home in Kesennuma froze to death after the tsunami hit the town killing 47 older people in total{2}.

According to ‘A Profile of Older Japanese 2011’, an annual booklet produced by the International Longevity Centre Japan, ‘more than one in every five persons is 65 and over and one in every ten is 75 and over’{3}.  Therefore the vulnerability of older people to natural disasters, widely recognised in several reports and in the academic literature, might have been disproportionate in an ageing society like Japan.
 
It is too soon to have concrete data regarding the impact of the earthquake and the tsunami on older Japanese people, but data on older people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami can be used as a reference to make a prediction. In “The Impact of the Indian Ocean Tsunami on Older People’, HelpAge International estimated that people aged over 60 represented over 8.6% of the total deaths and 6% of the people displaced in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Thailand{4}. These countries are relatively young (their total median age is 30 compared to 44.8 years of Japan{5}) and therefore the effect of the tsunami on Japanese older population could be much worse.
 
Older people are particularly affected by natural disasters due to their compromised mobility and social isolation, that limits access to water, food and medicines supplies. A further element of distress in addition to the psychological trauma experienced by older survivors is the resemblance of the disaster caused by the tsunami in the aftermath of the Second World War. The tsunami shattered the country, leaving entire cities devastated and many were swept away altogether by the strong waves of the tsunami.
 
The aftermath of the tsunami has raised some questions about what can be done to mitigate the vulnerability of the older people to natural disasters. Todd Kluss, from the Gerontology Society of America, suggests the use of ‘go-kits’ to assist older people including ‘contact information for family members; contact information for relevant health care providers; high-nutrient foods; and a week’s supply of all prescription and over-the-counter medications, including a list of medications, the required dosage, and times of administration’{6}.  Japanese people are prepared to react to natural catastrophes due to disaster risk reduction education undertaken in the public and private sector and especially in schools, but it does not seem to engage with older people{7}. It is responsibility of national and local governments to recognise the vulnerability of older people in these times and try to prevent and respond promptly to the severe challenges posed to them by natural disasters.  

Valentina Serra  

{1} http://www.euromonitor.com/japans-earthquake-will-add-to-its-economic-challenges/article
 
{2} http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/17/japanese-earthquake-toll-ageing-population-deaths
 
{3} ILC Japan, ‘A Profile of Older Japanese 2011’, http://www.ilc-alliance.org/book/profile-older-japanese-2011.html 

{4} HelpAge International, ‘The Impact of the Indian Ocean Tsunami on older people’, http://www.helpage.org/silo/files/the-impact-of-the-indian-ocean-tsunami-on-older-people-issues-and-recommendations.pdf.
 
{5} https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2177.html.
 
{6} http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/219644.php.
 
{7} http://www.ineesite.org/index.php/post/blog_learning_from_japan_promoting_education_on_climate_change_and_dis

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