Japan’s Aging Population: What Emergency Response Lessons Will We Learn From the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami?

March 24th, 2011

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The rescue of an 80-year-old grandmother and her teenage grandson from the kitchen of their apartment is a bright spot in otherwise bleak accounts of the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami aftermath. The average age of the more than 9,000 dead is 68-years-old, and providing adequate care for surviving elderly special needs victims will remain at the forefront of the recovery effort.

This should come as little surprise – Japan is considered the world’s oldest country and is aging faster than any other country. The areas hit by the earthquake and tsunami encompassed many smaller port and fishing towns and villages, including Miyagi and Iwate prefectures, with significantly older populations. People 65 or older accounted for 21% of the total population in 2005. By 2010 that figure increased to 23.07%, whereas in the U.S. 12.53% of the population is 65 and older. By 2050, two out of five in Japan will be 65 and older, and its working-age population will be smaller than it was in 1950.

Hundreds of thousands of elderly Japanese are taking refuge in schools, gymnasiums, and other makeshift shelters with little food and medicine to treat their ailments and chronic illnesses. In addition, the cold temperatures threaten their chances of survival. Doctors have already treated many survivors for pneumonia, asthma, and bronchitis, and are concerned about the possibility of an influenza outbreak.

These circumstances highlight the vulnerability of older and special needs populations during disasters. After the 1995 Kobe Earthquake, Japan invested a great deal in preparing for the next earthquake. Over the coming weeks and months the Japanese and we in the United States need to glean the lessons learned in what did and did not work in preparing for and surviving these disasters. Some questions to be answered:

  • What aspects of aging made the elderly more or less vulnerable? Medical needs? Physical mobility? Visual disability? Dependence on others?
  • How prepared were older citizens in particular? Did they have go-kits with essential medicines? What worked or did not work to ensure individual and community preparedness?
  • What types of preparedness steps were taken for frail elderly in health care facilities?
  • How well did family reunification effort work? How important was family reunification for the elderly persons?
  • What worked well for older Japanese in shelters and temporary housing? What was lacking?

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