By Hler Gudjonsson, IFRC
Mrs. Toshiko Yamada is one of the many devoted Japanese Red Cross Society volunteers who regularly visit residents of the temporary housing units in Fukushima. “My main task is to care for those who are already over 80 years old and living alone, to see if they are alright, and to cheer them up with small gifts,” the 81-year-old said. Together with other volunteers, she also takes part in cleaning the areas surrounding the units and planting flowers there.
The Minamiyanome temporary housing units are mainly occupied by the elderly and disabled who were forced to evacuate their homes following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed their houses and caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Many of the residents are from Namie, now a ghost town less than 20 kilometres away from the power plant. More than 21,000 people lived in Namie town before nuclear contamination made it uninhabitable.
With the help of Mrs. Yamada and other volunteers, the Red Cross’ chapter in Fukushima recently organized a day of activities including a general health check on the elderly residents, health education and first aid instruction. The residents were also entertained with folk music and a flower arrangement session, one of the most popular traditions in Japanese culture.
“I have met a lot of new friends since I moved to this temporary housing unit, and although I have lost contact with most of the people I used to know, I definitely cannot say that I am lonely,” said Mrs. Yomoko Iizawa, who used to own a pub in Namie town. “Red Cross events like this one mean a lot to all of us, and it is comforting to know that there are people who care about us. The activities are also very useful and I have learned many things today,” she said.
Mr. Masao Shibata, 77, has been living in the temporary housing unit since the summer of 2011. He will finally be relocating to a permanent home in July. “I feel relieved that I will soon get a home of my own, but at the same time I am also worried about my financial situation, since I don’t have a job now,” he said.
For Mr. Masao and the other elderly participants, the Red Cross event is a very welcome change to break the daily routines at the temporary housing compound. Still fit for his advanced age, he volunteered to demonstrate resuscitation techniques on a training manikin, while a Red Cross first aid instructor explained to the audience how to react if someone collapses and needs immediate medical attention.
Five years after the disaster, over 76,000 evacuees remain in temporary housing. The future of the depopulated areas in Fukushima remains uncertain, particularly for the elderly and those who lack the means to move to permanent homes. Over the last five years, the Red Cross has constructed 798 houses for the elderly who lost their houses in Iwate and Fukushima prefectures. Other support to the elderly has included the purchase of 338 welfare vans to improve the mobility of wheelchair users in 207 nursing facilities. A total of 959 specialised nursing beds were also purchased for 161 facilities.