Japan: Red Cross caregivers to strengthen their action as the country moves into early recovery phase

تم النشر: 17 مايو 2011 15:01 CET

by Giovanni Zambello in Japan

The car stops in the middle of the plain, a deserted landscape where only the skeletons of a few smashed buildings are still standing. The rest is only kilometres of debris, metal prongs protruding from the dusty soil, and cracked asphalt. Some cracks in the ground are so wide that they have been cordoned off and marked with makeshift signs bearing the word 危険 (danger), in order to prevent tyres from getting stuck in them.

Beyond the plain, only sea. It seems impossible to believe that it is the same quiet sea that two months ago obliterated entire towns, claiming in mere moments what the earthquake had spared.

Rikuzentakata, a town of 23,000 people in Iwate prefecture, north-eastern Japan, is one of the worst hit by the double disaster which struck Japan on March 11. Here people lost everything. In some cases, even hope.

“I am working on 24 hour shifts. There is simply too much work even to take a breath” says Aremi Ito, a young caregiver in Nozomigaoka centre, one of the nursing homes of the town, where 32 of the 190 elderly people previously living in the Matsubaraen centre were evacuated, after the building was heavily damaged by the disaster. “The situation is starting to stabilise now, but in the last weeks we have had hard times, with our capacity stretched to the limit for the loss of some staff members and the challenge of a new working environment which it will take a while to get acquainted with. On top of that, the health situation is also difficult because of the disruption of water systems and the lack of beds and other materials for the elderly, which makes disease prevention a hard task for us,” she continues.

“Here I feel safe now,” says Asayo Kanno, a 71-year-old retired lady who was moved to Nozomigaoka nursing centre after the tsunami destroyed the Matsubaraen centre, where she had been staying for two years. “I was very scared when I saw the tsunami coming. I remember that Red Cross people came, took me by the arms and brought me down the stairs to a safe place.

“Trainers and operators are taking good care of me and I am sharing the room with the same people as in Matsubaraen. I found a warm and welcoming place in Nozomigaoka and, even if I miss my old place, I am happy here.”

Nozomigaoka, a day care nursing home focused on the physical rehabilitation of elderly people, is one of the centres in Rikuzentakata where the Japanese Red Cross started a post-disaster community service pilot project: for an initial period of one month, four teams of specialised elderly caregivers will take turns to support current staff members and share the workload in the delivery of services to elderly people.

“It is important to identify those cases where caregivers need care too,” comments Koji Ichigawa, coordinator of the first Red Cross team deployed in Rikuzentakata on 15 April. “Two of the original 19 staff members died in the disaster. Some others are still missing. The limited capacity of those who remain is further reduced by the high level of stress, as they work at an unsustainable rate and some of them no longer have a home to go back to, or have to go outside after the shift and look for their missing relatives. Our team and the ones which will follow – each deployed for a one-week shift, for a total of one month – will take care not only of the elderly, but also of caregivers themselves, before they experience burnout symptoms.”

The idea of a Red Cross nursing home was already in the pipeline in Tokyo, with some specialised staff been identified for the setting up of a core team of elderly caregivers. The urgent need to strengthen local capacities in the management of nursing homes in the affected areas mobilised the action of the Japanese Red Cross, which is now assessing mid- and long-term needs and the possibility to extend the deployment period after the first month.

“Japan is a country with a large elderly population. This constitutes one of the most vulnerable groups of society, which was further weakened by the recent earthquake and tsunami,” says Yukie Ohashi, member of the Red Cross team, who is herself a nurse in the Red Cross hospital of Kumamoto. “I think we are all aware that, as we enter the early recovery phase, the action of mobile medical teams might not be enough to cope with the needs of the affected population as the country is being rebuilt. More specialised personnel, including elderly caregivers, will also be needed.”