Recovery for Japanese Elderly, One Stitch at a Time

March 7, 2012


Ms. Shoko Saito, 70, couldn’t reach the evacuation site before the tsunami hit her neighborhood in Ishinomaki. Instead, she ran to the second floor of her home and watched as the unbelievable catastrophe unfurled outside her window.

“I grabbed two strangers floating on the tidal wave and saved their lives. We remained at my house until we were evacuated four days later. There I saw some of my neighbors who had managed to survive but I was in too much shock to even speak with them.”

Soon afterward Ms. Saito learned that her house had sustained serious damage from the tsunami and she was forced to move to the Omori Danchi transitional shelter. “I was too depressed to figure out what to do next. That’s when I happened upon the handicraft gathering for the first time.”

Ms. Saito is among tens of thousands of people living in transitional shelters as a result of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that pummeled the east coast of the country in March 2011. While JDC’s initial phase relief brought the disaster victims emergency aid like food, water, and blankets, the protracted situation of those who lost everything—family, homes, livelihoods, and community—necessitated a different kind of intervention.

Working in partnership with JEN, a leading Japanese NGO, JDC is tending to the psychological and social needs of thousands of people traumatized by the disaster. Residents in communities in Kitakami, Ogatsu, and Oshika gather at small, multi-purpose neighborhood-based centers or ‘community cafés’ to socialize and share their stories. In transitional centers where neighbors are mostly strangers to one another, the need for community building is great because so many have lost their relatives and friends.

With JDC support, the centers offer residents psychosocial care, art therapy, legal aid, counseling, health services, community workshops, and conflict mediation. To date, more than 3,200 residents in 13 temporary housing compounds (transitional residencies where people have settled for the next 2 to 5 years until sufficient housing can be rebuilt) have directly benefitted from these services. When fully operational, the project will serve over 10,000 people in Ishinomaki City and the surrounding areas.

“When I saw people knitting in the handicraft program, it reminded me of how much I used to love to knit. I wondered how I could have forgotten that and soon realized how exhausted I had become mentally. It had become difficult for me to be cheerful and laugh in front of other people.”

Today the craft circle is bringing Ms. Saito joy and helping her to socialize. “I feel fortunate to have these activities to come to, even more than material assistance,” she said. “By using my hands and knitting, I am recovering, little by little. I’m talking with others about what we’ve all lived through and am starting to feel positive. It is important at my age to live each day with appreciation, and I am grateful to feel good again.”

Based on JDC’s Supportive Community model for the elderly pioneered in Israel and the former Soviet Union, and located in temporary residential communities in Ishinomaki City, the cafes aim to alleviate isolation and restore a sense of community to those who have lost everything. The cafés provide residents with a physical space to gather for activities, programs, and classes; in the process they share their experiences with one another.

For, Ms. Kunie Ishimoro, 73, a resident of Ohara Junior High School transitional shelter, the program’s activities have helped her think about a bright future again.

Before the tsunami her family farmed scallops in one of the many small, rural fishing villages along the Oshika Peninsula. The tsunami killed her husband and washed away the family’s home and livelihood.

She moved to the transitional shelter with her two grown sons, one of whom is cerebrally handicapped. She couldn’t think about going back to the port because it reminded her of everyone and everything she had lost.

But with time she discovered the handicraft group in her shelter complex and began coming regularly. The chance to see her old neighbors, to share activities together helped restore normalcy and a sense of community in her life.

“Today I worked with the group to place planters around the community. I planted various kinds of flowers in our field because I love to see them bloom all together,” said Ms. Kunie. “I used to work on the fields on our family farm. Now I am looking forward to seeing these tulips blossom and to planting flowers and growing vegetables by myself next spring. These activities warm my heart.”

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