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Is a disaster required to improve focus on older adults?

Will it take a tsunami to create a coherent vision of more successful aging?  It was a disaster. On March 11 of this year, one-third of the 16,000  Japanese tsunami deaths were among the 65+, no doubt embarrassing the citizens and government, who most likely believed they had done a good job of providing for an aging population. An article in The Gerontologist spells out why:  In 1989 the Japanese government developed a vision for long-term care, refined in 2000 with its own slogan "from care by family to care by society” complete with "policy to make home, community-based and institutional services a universal entitlement" based on physical and mental status regardless of family availability and economic status.

In absolute terms, the US has more older adults, but far less focus. By the numbers: 23% of Japan’s 127 million population are 65+ (29 million people); 20% are 75+. Sixteen percent of the 65+ population live alone. Japanese older adults are more socially isolated than in France, Germany, Korea, and the US – and ranked last in frequencies of contact with non-resident adult children. And Japan is second to last, above the last-place US, in contact with their neighbors." Okay, let’s compare: 13% of the US’ 311 million people are 65+, representing 40 million in the US to 29.2 million in Japan. In Japan: "Recognized as a critical societal issue, aging is a major research theme in almost all academic disciplines and industries."  Despite the absolute numbers, that is hardly the case in the US.

Tech utilization is perceived to be low – considering the benefit during a disaster. Tech was a big assist in the tsunami, allowing "geographically distant people to contribute their unique resources and collaborate with people unknown to them." But according to the article: "The social networking service utilization rates are lower among those who are older (36% for 60+, 45% for 40–59, and 65% for 15–39 years), and Internet use remains low in the oldest cohorts who are unfamiliar with typewriting or computer keyboards (58% for 65–69, 33% for 70+, and 19% for 80+ years.)"  In the US, those numbers are roughly 58% and 30% -- there is no comparable survey number available today in the US for those aged 80+.

Public embarrassment may improve the lot of older adults in Japan – US, not yet.  Looking at the absolute numbers which are so similar, one might think that the US needs the same wake up call about the size of its aging population, the need for coherent cross-country strategies, the social services that might be useful, the benefits that are inherent in boosting internet access and utilization, and the obvious need in both countries to tackle social isolation.

Distance equals diffusion of purpose. The US rank at the bottom for lack of contact with neighbors is symptomatic of a larger and worrisome issue. In the US, older adults represent a smaller percentage of the whole population. They are dispersed across a vast country. They are invisible in large cities, especially the home bound. And finally, their needs are divided into 50 state strategy buckets and budgets; and increasingly part of the bulls-eye target for public expense reduction. To see a coherent strategy form in the US, will it take a tsunami like Japan’s or a heat wave like the 2003 Paris disaster in which 10,000 died?


Hi Laurie,

Thanks for your posting about the sad loss of elders as a result of the Japanese tsunami. I was, however, impressed by the phrase "from care by family to care by society." We should all be looking out for ways to assist our older adults. Sadly our sense of U.S. individualism doesn't instill this virtue in us, until it is to late (as a result of a disaster, as you point out), or we are in crisis mode to care for a loved one.



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