(Citation: Barusch, Amanda S. (2011) ‘Disaster, Vulnerability, and Older Adults: Toward a Social Work Response’, Journal of Gerontological Social Work, 54: 4, 347 — 350.)
After the devastating earthquake in Christchurch we all feel vulnerable here in New Zealand, but as reports from Tokyo remind us, when it comes to disasters, older adults are most vulnerable of all. As of March 23, 65% of the 2,853 people known to have died in Japan’s earthquake and tsunami were over 60 years old, and an estimated 46% were 70 or older (House of Japan, 2011; Majiroxnews, 2011). These figures are high, even for a nation with one of the world’s oldest populations. Older adults make up 23% of Japanese, nearly twice their proportion in the United States.
Kansai University professor Yoshiaki Kawata explained that older people have higher mortality rates because they move more slowly. He suggested that “The central and local governments should review the way they evacuate the elderly and impress upon young people that they should help out in an emergency” (House of Japan, 2011; Majiroxnews, 2011). Evacuation plans are necessary but clearly not sufficient. MSNBC reported that 14 seniors died, presumably of exposure, after being moved from a hospital near the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant to temporary shelter in a school gym (MSNBC, 2011). Apart from that, when the sky is falling it is hardly reasonable to expect 25-year-olds to risk their own lives to help straggling elders.
But what is reasonable? This editorial will briefly consider factors that contribute to the vulnerability of older adults in times of disaster and outline some considerations that might inform our social work contribution to disaster preparedness and response.