Japan's hunt for missing elderly exposes social woes

Sun Aug 22, 2010 10:54pm EDT
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By Antoni Slodkowski

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - A Japanese media frenzy over missing centenarians has cast a spotlight on the isolation and loneliness potentially faced by millions of elderly as the government struggles to cope with a rapidly graying population.

The panic - and guilt - was sparked by the discovery that a man believed Tokyo's oldest male at 111 had actually been dead for over 30 years with his remains found mummified at his home. His family is under investigation for fraud.

Since then authorities have been unable to locate over 250 elderly people and reports have emerged of many old people dying alone, or of relatives running scams to get their pensions amid broken communities and overworked public volunteers.

"Don't worry, my mum-in-law is not a mummy," one relative, Mio Akiyama, jokingly reassured workers of Suginami ward, one of 23 special wards or municipalities of Tokyo, as they were checking on the area's elderly last week.

With investigations underway, officials have found many older people have moved away from their family homes, never to be heard from again, showing how the vulnerable with few friends can easily fall through the cracks of a leaky, support network.

Fusa Furuya of Tokyo's Suginami district, thought to be Tokyo's oldest woman at age 113, was found not be living at the address where she was registered. She has yet to be found and none of her family know her whereabouts.

Her step-granddaughter told Japanese media she had not seen her relative for more than 20 years.

"I feel sad and lonely. I didn't realize that kind of thing can happen in Suginami ward where I live," said 67-year-old retiree Katsuji Yamashiro.   Continued...

<p>A woman strolls through Tokyo's Sugamo district, an area popular among the Japanese elderly, September 20, 2007. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao</p>