On March 11, 2011, an unusually strong earthquake off the coast of northeastern Japan produced a tsunami that in some places reached as high as 40 meters. The massive wave crashed across the coastal towns, carrying massive boats and buildings before sweeping back out to sea, in an instance transforming the landscape into a wasteland. 15,884 people were confirmed dead as a direct result, and over 3000 more died in the aftermath. 2633 people are still considered missing, and over 260,000 were evacuated to temporary housing. A majority of those who died and almost half of those who were moved to temporary housing were adults over 60, often suffering from a combination of inadequate medical and caregiving assistance, emotional trauma and grief, and loneliness as a result of the displacement and the slow pace of recovery efforts. Suicides have been particularly high among older adults, and survivors’ risk of dementia is 1.3 times higher than the general population. Over 110,000 older adults in the areas most affected by the tsunami (including those evacuated from the area around the damaged Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant) are certified as needing care. Fukushima, which has seen a 50% rise in seniors needing care since the disaster, just announced that it will be offering cash incentives of up to 450,000yen towards training and certification expenses to attract caregivers to the badly understaffed area. The last three years since the earthquake and tsunami have highlighted the larger issue of older adults’ vulnerability in the wake of natural disasters, many of which are now increasing in severity and impact as a result of climate change.
This past year in Japan has seen its share of climate related extremes, which, when combined with the changing demographic and residential trends, . Record snowfalls in northern Japan, for instance, resulted in hundreds of isolated villages, many of which, as a result of gradual depopulation over the last half century are mostly comprised of older adults. In early February, I joined a group of volunteers in Kyoto to shovel snow in one such community, located on the outer edge of the “city” limits, about an hour drive from downtown. According to the local community welfare director, of the 90 residents in this community, deep in the mountains, about 50 were over the age of 70, and while the plows had cleared many of the main roads, many could not leave their homes due to accumulated snowfall. Drifts blocked doorways, and ice covered the steps. “The snow is so frightening!” one long-time resident told me, “There are no young people to help us anymore. This place is going to disappear.”
After spending the morning shoveling we gathered in the senior community center, once the local elementary school to eat lunch and speak with some of the local residents. One of the organizers of the volunteer group spoke first: “Residents here pay into the same mandatory long-term health insurance plan as everyone else in the city, but don’t receive the services one has in the rest of the city! It is only one of many more communities where the insurance fees are just wasted. Volunteer groups like this one let them know that they are not abandoned, that there is still someone watching over them.”
At the bottom of the mountains, in the urbanized part of the city, the older adults are also the most keenly aware of global climate change, however, their main concern has been the increasing temperatures. “We used to get plenty of snow here in Kyoto,” my neighbor told me as the last remnants of the previous night’s snowfall melted off his gray shingled roof, “But these days we get one or two snowfalls and it melts right away.” Older Kyotoites notice these changes everywhere, from the water levels in the rivers to the timing of the peak of fall colors. The seasons that they grew up with are different than they remember them.
In 2013, Kyoto had its hottest summer on record (since 1946), with average temperatures 1.2 degrees (C) higher than average. By mid-August, a record 21,000 people had been hospitalized with heat stroke, about half of them over 65. The warming trend, beginning in 1930, is easily attributable to atmospheric Co2 and other greenhouse gases. The seas around Japan, which in the past had moderated these severe fluctuations in weather, are also warming, leading to more severe typhoons and even tornadoes, which were virtually unknown in Japan until about five years ago. At disaster prevention drills organized by local self-governing associations, those gathered are mostly older adults. “Things were a little different after 3.11,” one organizer told me at a recent drill, “But now the feeling has weakened; young people just think that they are going to live forever!” We were interrupted by a drill leader with a microphone who reminds us to remember things like medication and dentures when evacuating older people, and to clearly record how many adults will need diapers on our evacuation record paperwork.
The point I want to make here is not about the meteorological connections between snowstorms, typhoons, tornadoes, and climate change, but rather about the way that people interpret these uncertain weather changes to call attention to social, political, and demographic changes. How do people prepare for or prevent the uncertain? How do they assess their personal risk and the social effects climate change has on their future? As I informally polled snow shoveling volunteers and the those in attendance at disaster drills, it was clear that the consciousness of risk was not evenly distributed among generations. One result of this generational gap, in part structured by political systems of welfare, insurance, and community organizing, is an increased feeling among older adults that they are alone in their concern, that one cannot rely on the community or on formal assistance to fully prepare for the next disaster. Understanding aging in the age of climate change requires attention not only to the vulnerabilities in the wake of severe weather events, but also to the social and cultural environments in which relations of assistance and safety are created and the need for a global response that recognizes the complex dynamics of politics and population change.
Editor-in-Chief, Anthropology & Aging
Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Rhode Island College
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