In order to move disaster victims out of cramped communal shelters several months after the tsunami, municipal governments assigned temporary housing through a lottery system. Victims were moved and spread out across each municipality, losing ties to their neighborhoods along the way. A shortage of centrally-located flat land on which to build temporary housing units after the tsunami meant many elderly survivors not only found themselves living far from friends, but also from amenities like shops, clinics, and town halls.
“The older generation has been through a lot,” says Ruth Campbell, a visiting scholar at Tokyo University’s Institute of Gerontology. This includes war, poverty, and previous tsunamis. “A lot of them are very strong and resilient, but for some, the more losses they sustain, the more difficult it is for them to keep their wellbeing,” says Ms. Campbell, a retired geriatric social worker.
For Nisaburo Sasaki, the support center is one of his few remaining ties to society. A widower of seven years, he lost one son in the tsunami and doesn’t see his other two children often. His former neighborhood friends are scattered across town. The nurse, Akiko Sasaki says he likes to drink. She’s found him passed out alone in his room on several occasions.
“I’m keeping an eye on him. I think he’d be at risk if it weren’t for this place,” she says.
It’s too early to assess how widespread the problems of depression and social isolation are, says John Campbell, also a researcher at the Institute of Gerontology. Prefectural officials haven’t compiled statistics on how many elderly are living alone in temporary housing or in their own partially damaged homes.