Monday, 11 April 2011

It is a month today since the massive Tohoko earthquake and the shocking tsunami that followed it. Since then there have been almost 400 aftershocks, some of them very large (including one today at 7.1 magnitude) Japan Meterological Agency.  The focus of media attention in the west quickly shifted to concerns about the conditions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and the struggle there to contain leaks. Meanwhile, in north-east Japan, snow and freezing weather hampered relief and recovery efforts. It will come as no surprise that many of the people affected both by the catastrophes and by the difficult conditions of the following days and weeks have been older people: and in spite of a traditional Japanese respect for older people there have inevitably been heartbreaking stories of abandonment and trauma.  
Age Scotland - article
The Independent - article

A few years ago, CABS member Bill Bytheway wrote an article about the impact on New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina, the subsequent flooding caused by breaching of the levees, and events during and after evacuation Bill Bytheway on Katrina evacuations. He pointed out that while the victims had often been portrayed as mainly poor and black, in fact age and physical ability were the key issues in survival, and the highest rates of death were among older people in hospital and nursing homes.

Japan has the highest percentage of older people in the world, reflecting a population that has been ageing faster than other developed countries. Over 23% of the population were already over 65 in 2009 (compared with 16% in the UK) - and this is projected to increase to almost 40% by 2050. While most older Japanese people live with someone else (child, spouse, etc) 23% now live alone - and women, especially very old women, are much more likely to live alone than men (ILC Japan data).

Hence Japan takes ageing very seriously as a social reality, just as it takes seriously the seismic reality of its location. While Tohoko 2011 was quite exceptional, I hope that the famous Japanese preparedness for earthquakes and tsunamis will increasingly lead the way on evacuation protocols that work better for older people. It seems to me that the discussion about interdependence posted below by Jill Reynolds is highly relevant here. When taken-for-granted support structures fail, the limitations of 'independence' are all too obvious.