• Kyodo

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A growing number of elderly people have turned to public housing since the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, according to a fresh Kyodo News survey, throwing a spotlight on the financial hardship facing the demographic.

The percentage of residents aged 65 or older using disaster relief housing in Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures stood at 40.3 percent, sharply higher than the estimated 30 percent average for prefectures nationwide, the survey, released on Wednesday, showed.

The housing includes permanent residences leased to those who have been forced to live in temporary housing after losing their homes in disasters.

Of the 39,664 people living in disaster relief housing in the three prefectures as of Jan. 1, 15,990 were aged 65 or older, according to figures obtained from municipalities managing the residences.

The figures are more dramatic in hardest-hit areas, surpassing 50 percent at six municipalities in the region.

In the Miyagi Prefecture town of Onagawa — where about 70 percent of homes collapsed in 2011 — the percentage of elderly in disaster relief housing came to 53.7 percent. The figure is 54.3 percent in Minamisoma, Fukushima Prefecture, which was hit by tsunami and meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

“We are creating a network to watch over the elderly by cooperating with police and newspaper distributors,” said an official at Minamisoma city.

The survey showed 22 elderly residents have died unattended in 17 municipalities, raising concerns that more cases could follow in line with a trend that occurred after a magnitude-7.3 quake hit Kobe in 1995.

The town of Yamada in Iwate Prefecture, in which residents aged 65 or older account for 56.1 percent of disaster relief housing residents, said upkeep can be a problem as many of the residents cannot take part in maintenance, such as snow shoveling and cleaning.

The the lack of familiar neighbors may also make the elderly prone to isolation, it was noted. To address this, municipalities and local communities are taking measures to check in on them.

In Tagajo, Miyagi Prefecture, consultation offices have received multiple inquiries from senior residents, including those who are unable to shop for basic necessities because they have no means of transport.

The consultation offices have been set up in four housing complexes built by the city.

“We can detect risks ahead of time, allowing us to respond swiftly,” said Kei Kikuchi, a 37-year-old official from a social welfare company that operates the consultation offices in collaboration with the city.

Still, two residents at the housing complexes died unattended even with these precautions. In future, the consultation centers may check on residents by phone or by monitoring electricity usage, especially as seniors mostly stay at home and tend to reject support.

Meanwhile, the city of Minamisoma is reviving and expanding a past initiative involving tenant volunteers.

The municipal government had previously appointed leaders from each housing complex to coordinate their neighbors, manage events and distribute supplies.

The government applied this model to disaster relief public housing and let residents share information about the elderly at monthly meetings.

“The government will cooperate, but communities are important,” a Minamisoma city official said. “I would like each housing complex to be responsible for self-governing and continue watching over the elderly.”

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