Japan's Elderly Hit Especially Hard In Disaster Initial reports from parts of Japan devastated by the earthquake and tsunami suggest that elderly residents account for a disproportionate number of victims. That's because the nation is quake-prone and its people long-lived. Now, the elderly survivors, many with special needs, are among the tens of thousands living in temporary shelters.
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Japan's Elderly Hit Especially Hard In Disaster

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Japan's Elderly Hit Especially Hard In Disaster

Japan's Elderly Hit Especially Hard In Disaster

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The dead are still being counted in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami. And many of them are elderly. That's because Japan is the world's most earthquake-prone country, as well as its most aged society. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from the city of Kesennuma.

ANTHONY KUHN: Daisuke Hirata is the manager of another nursing home in a nearby city. Nine of his residents were brought here after the tsunami damaged his facility. He recalls when the powerful quake hit.

DAISUKE HIRATA: (Through Translator) Some people hid under tables. Those suffering dementia, they couldn't understand what was happening. They just squatted down or covered their heads with cushions.

KUHN: Once the shaking stopped, nine caregivers and 23 seniors, some of them in wheelchairs, headed for high ground. Hirata remembers seeing the tsunami coming.

HIRATA: (Through Translator) It rose up and sloshed around like water boiling in a pot. Unlike normal waves, the tsunami kicked up huge amounts of spray. It was like a scene from a movie. Houses were creaking as the tsunami crushed them together.

KUHN: Keiko Yoshizawa, who manages the House of Blessings and Longevity, says that even with large government subsidies demand for care of the elderly far outstrips the supply.

KEIKO YOSHIZAWA: (Through Translator) We have 500 people on the waiting list here. In all of Japan, there are 400,000 people on waiting lists for nursing homes. Our waiting list is three times the capacity of our facility.

KUHN: Noritoshi Tanida is a scholar at the Yamaguchi Graduate School of Medicine in southern Japan. He says that most of the nearly 6,500 people killed in the 1995 Kobe earthquake were elderly. Tanida says that seniors' lack of mobility is not the only reason for this. Lifestyles and psychology are also factors.

NORITOSHI TANIDA: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: Eighty-two-year-old Hisaho Koseki barely escaped the tsunami. Now she sits among piles of blankets and boxes of donuts at a local evacuation center. She says the disaster has left her homeless, and she's afraid of being kicked out of the shelter. Her son has offered to take her in, but she doesn't want to burden him.

HISAHO KOSEKI: (Through Translator) I have chronic ailments, and I don't know how much longer I'll live. I don't want to die, but in this situation, perhaps it would be better if I did.

KUHN: Koseki has survived much worse than this. During World War II, she worked in Tokyo as allied bombing raids turned the capital into a sea of flames. She says many colleagues just didn't show up for work in the mornings at her electronics factory.

KOSEKI: (Through Translator) I asked about them and was told they were killed. It was a military factory, so I think the Americans specifically targeted us. The war was scary, but we couldn't do anything about it. Now this tsunami has happened. I guess I was just destined to live through these things.

KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Kesennuma.

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