While Japan's quake-triggered tsunami and nuclear evacuations affected
millions of people, one group was hit harder than others by the tragedies - the country's
enormous elder population.
(New America Media)
Nearly one in four Japanese are over the age of 65, and data from past
disasters shows that's exactly the age most affected by catastrophies.
The current crisis bespeaks the need to plan ahead to help seniors during an
emergency like a flood, wildfire, hurricane or earthquake, particularly as 77
million American boomers begin turning 65 this year.
“Japan’s population - with the highest proportion of older people in any
country - gives us an indicator of where the world as a whole is headed,”
said James Appleby, executive director of The
Gerontological Society of America.
“The significance of this demographic
shift and the severity of the tsunami’s effects are highlighted by the
numerous reports showing that seniors suffer disproportionately during natural
disasters," he said.
In Hurricane Katrina, for example, three quarters of those who died were over
60, according to Public
Policy & Aging Report.
And in the 2008 quake in Wenchuan,
China, researchers noted twice as many people in the 90s died within a year,
according to The
Journal of Gerontology Series A: Biological and Medical Sciences.
Similar situations are now playing out in Japan, according to Appleby. Of
the thousands killed by the tsunami, most will likely turn out to be seniors who
couldn't evacuate fast enough to get away from the coming wave.
“Many people have
limited access to food and water, and there is concern that lifesaving medicines
could soon be in short supply," he said. "A number of the tragic news stories we see call
attention to the needs of older people and other at-risk populations."
There are things that can be done ahead of time to minimize the danger to
elders. For example, geographic information systems can map out where the
most vulnerable citizens live, so that first-responders can move quickly to help
them when the need arises.
The GSA also suggested multi-tiered evacuation plans and pre-existing social
networks can help to minimize a disaster's impact on seniors.
One idea it to prepare a "go kit" that seniors can grab quickly if
evacuation is necessary. It would contain family contact information,
health care information, a week's supply of any prescription medicine,
high-nutrient foods and contact information for family members and caregivers.
Then if a senior gets separated, others can help them more quickly.