July 25, 2011

On July 24, the Japan Times reported that the current death toll from the March 11 quake and tsunami is now 15,616, with nearly 5,000 people still missing. It also reported that there have been 570 possible “related deaths” in Miyagi, Iwate, and Fukushima, such as seniors who died from pneumonia after having been soaked by the tsunami. The final death toll is expected to include those who die from stress or chronic disease while living in shelters, which a serious concern particularly for seniors who have been living as evacuees now for more than four months.

The Association for Aid and Relief (AAR) Japan reported on its efforts to protect the health of seniors, whose extended stays in evacuation facilities and other factors have reduced their ability to exercise. Medical staff have seen a noted decline in their physical abilities, and the lack of exercise can affect their mental health as well. To address this concern, AAR has sent a team of occupational therapists, physiotherapists, and other experts to Miyagi Prefecture to visit evacuation centers and homes to give advice on rehabilitation and how to improve the living environment.

For example, one woman in her 80s who has been living with her husband at an evacuation center has arthritis in her knees, making it difficult to move around. One of the AAR team’s therapists massaged her knees and listened to the problems she’s had. For example, the women’s bathrooms at the shelter only have Japanese-style toilets, which require that the person squat down to use them. This is very difficult for seniors, so the AAR team has suggested that the center remedy that by installing Western-style seats that fit over the existing toilets. In another evacuation center, the team met an intellectually disabled woman in her 70s whose legs were swollen so that her shoes no longer fit properly and she was having difficulty walking. The team helped by showing her some rehabilitation methods using a walker that the evacuation center had on hand, and they also are proposing that this woman be provided with shoes and a walker that will fit her properly. It is important that these seniors have daily exercise and therapy, particularly as their environment continues to change—from their own home to the evacuation centers, from there to temporary housing, and hopefully to their own homes again one day soon.