December 6, 2011

JAPAN: Checking up on the elderly in disaster-hit areas

OSAKA, Japan / The Daily Yomiuri / National / December 6, 2011

By Yasuhiro Maeda and Tomoko Koizumi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writers

With the arrival of winter, residents in areas affected by the March 11 disaster have implemented measures to check on elderly residents living alone in temporary housing units.

On Friday morning, temperatures dropped to below zero in many of the quake-affected areas, the lowest so far this winter. There are concerns elderly people living alone may become ill or die as they will have to withstand not only loneliness, but also the cold.

An elderly man walks in a temporary housing complex in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Friday.

In the Naka-dori area of Fukushima Prefecture, temperatures dipped below zero in the early morning.

At a 240-unit temporary housing complex in Otamamura, Fukushima Prefecture, four residents made the rounds of individual units to make sure yellow flags had been hung at the door.

The group called to residents inside, asking, "Are you OK?" or "How do you feel today?"

The flags, measuring 20 centimeters by 30 centimeters, are called "Shiawase no hata (happiness flags)," a name inspired by the film "Shiawase no Kiiroi Hankachi" (Yellow handkerchief of happiness), starring popular actor Ken Takakura.

Mitsutoshi Kamata, 56, head of the residents' association, came up with the idea of using the flags to confirm the safety of the elderly living alone. The association distributed the flags to 44 households, mainly those with residents aged 70 or older living alone.

The group decided those people should hang the flags in the morning and take them down in the evening. Other residents take turns checking the flags.

In mid-October, this system helped the residents discover a 70-year-old man unable to move due to a stomachache because his flag was left outside after dark. After being rushed to the hospital, the man was diagnosed as suffering from an inflamed gall bladder.

After an operation, the man was discharged two weeks later.

"The flag saved my life," the man said.

Residents at the Otamamura temporary housing complex moved there from Tomiokamachi, which is close to the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. They say it is colder in inland Otamamura than in their hometown on the Pacific coast.

"I don't want our neighbors to die alone," Kamata said.

At a 70-unit temporary housing complex in Ofunato, Iwate Prefecture, personal alarms were distributed to all households at the end of October to enable residents to notify others if they have a problem by pulling the cord to activate the alarm.

The alarms were distributed in small bags containing an "Otasuke shiito (help sheet)" with a sheet to list information, such as any chronic illnesses, family doctors' names and emergency contact numbers. Elderly people were asked to carry the bags not only when they go out but also when they are home.

Shoetsu Shimizu, 62, who heads the residents' association there, asked volunteer organizations to donate the alarms.

"I'm worried about the elderly's health as it gets colder," Shimizu said.

In October, a 79-year-old woman living alone in temporary housing in the prefecture was found dead in her bathroom.

"Local government officials are patrolling temporary housing to keep an eye on those living alone. But there is a limit to what they can do," Shimizu said. "It's important to have a system to enable residents to notify their neighbors in case of an emergency."

Some complexes are trying to set up community gardens so residents will not stay indoors even on cold days. The gardens also provide communication opportunities for residents.

In Otsuchicho, Iwate Prefecture, Tono Magokoro Net, a volunteer group, played a major part in making a vegetable garden on unused farmland in the town's Kozuchi district.

Daikon radishes, spinach and other vegetables were planted, and residents from nearby temporary housing units gather in the garden on weekends.

Setsuko Sano, 59, who enthusiastically works in the garden, said, "Coming here allows me to chat with many people and brighten my day."

The organization plans to set up a total of three vegetable gardens in the town and use the vegetables grown there to make bentos for the elderly.

Ryoichi Usuzawa, 63, a member of the organization who lost his house in the disaster, said, "We'll keep an eye on the elderly, who tend to be isolated, and give them opportunities to go out."

Following the Great Hanshin Earthquake, some disaster victims living alone died while their neighbors were unaware they were in trouble.

Between 1995, when the quake occurred, and 1999, 233 persons in temporary housing died that way. Of those, about 64 percent were aged 60 or over.

Yasuhiro Yuki, an associate professor of social welfare studies at Shukutoku University, said, "Temporary housing complexes in the Tohoku region are far from towns and cities, and sometimes the elderly are reluctant to go out.

"When the weather is very cold, there are fewer events. So efforts to watch the elderly and prevent them from being isolated are especially important."

© The Yomiuri Shimbun
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