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Japan's Seniors Hit Hardest in Disaster's Aftermath

Rescue agencies scrambling to reach elderly

In natural disasters, seniors often fare the worst. Limited mobility and delayed reaction coupled with scarce resources often hinder rescue efforts. Knowing that older people are the most vulnerable in any emergency leaves rescue agencies scrambling to reach them. And Japan is no different. In fact, the challenge is even more evident.

About 22 percent of Japan's 127 million people are age 65 or over, nearly double that of the United States. And the average life expectancy in Japan is 86.5 for women and 79.9 for men. That’s higher than the average of 78 in the United States, the record high released yesterday.

Less than a week after an earthquake-sparked tsunami hit the island, some agencies are scaling back efforts to find survivors as the death toll creeps past 10,000. But for the remaining rescue teams it’s a race against the clock, as seniors often live with and rely on relatives (who may have died) and life-saving medication (which may be lost). And for many older people, surviving the initial disaster isn’t the hardest part. It’s dealing with the aftermath that often contributes to a survivor’s decline.

Yoshikatsu Hiratsuka grieves in front of wreckage where the body of his mother is buried in Onagawa, northern Japan

Yoshikatsu Hiratsuka grieves in front of wreckage where the body of his mother is buried in Onagawa, northern Japan Thursday, March 17, 2011. Hiratsuka kept crying out, saying "Sorry, Sorry" that he couldn't have helped her from tsunami. — Hiroto Sekiguchi/Yomiuri Shimbun/AP

"The tsunami killed 47 of the 113 residents at a retirement home in the city of Kesennuma," according to the Associated Press Online. "Those who could escaped to the second floor. But many got wet, and 11 more died over the next two days because of the cold, said [the facility's] owner, Morimitsu Inawashida."

Experts say stress associated with losing homes and loved ones can send seniors into depression, which may have an insurmountable affect on their health.

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