Three years after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami heavily damaged the Tohoku region, many children orphaned by the disasters are in the care of grandparents or other elderly relatives who are facing health concerns that could limit their ability to continue as foster parents.
As of June 2012, the number of children who had lost both parents to the disasters stood at 241. Of those, 94 were in Iwate, 126 in Miyagi and 21 in Fukushima, according to government statistics.
In Iwate, one of the three coastal prefectures hit particularly hard by the quake and tsunami, the average age of foster parents is nearing 70, its welfare consultation center said.
A woman in her 60s participating in a “foster parents’ salon” in the city of Miyako said the monthly event is highly beneficial.
“It’s really helpful to get someone to listen to what I have to say once every month,” said the woman, who is raising a one of the orphans.
An association of foster parents has divided Iwate’s coastal region into three areas and held more than 70 of the salon events so far. It offers an opportunity for the foster parents to share their concerns with people who already have experience being foster parents.
The prefecture currently has 35 couples raising 51 orphans. Of them, foster relatives such as grandparents and siblings of parents are 68.1 years old on average.
In Miyagi, meanwhile, the average age of foster relatives for orphans was 63.1 as of Feb. 28, according to the prefectural government.
The average age in Fukushima was 59.2 as of Feb. 1, but this figure covers all foster parents, including those taking care of children for reasons not related to the disasters.
“Many families are concerned about the future because of the (advanced) age of foster parents,” said Yuki Konno, 41, who works for a children’s home in Ofunato in Iwate and regularly visits foster homes.
“The biggest challenge is facing the possibility that there will be no one to take care of the children,” Konno said.
A 92-year-old man in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, is a regular at a local foster parents’ salon. He is the oldest of the foster parents in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima and has been looking after two grandchildren — a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy.
The two grandchildren cried when their father died from an illness before the events of March 2011, he said, but they have not cried even once in their grandfather’s presence since their mother was killed by the tsunami.
“They haven’t seen the body of their mother and probably haven’t found closure in their thoughts,” he said, expressing a sense of frustration at not being able to understand what they are going through.
The man said he is blessed by the people around him for their help. His caregivers do many of the household chores, including cooking and shopping. When his grandchildren caught a cold, the parents of their classmates took them to see a doctor. They also took the grandson on a trip organized by a sports group for boys.
Last fall, the man was hospitalized for more than a month with acute pneumonia. The worst-case scenario crossed his mind, he said. Relatives took turns staying at his home to watch the two children.
One day, the grandson suddenly said, “Grandpa, you can never die, you know.” The man said that all he could think to say was “I definitely won’t die.”
It will take eight years before the grandson will turn 20.
“That means, to witness these children becoming full-fledged adults, I will live up to 100,” he said.