BLOG: Reflections in the field #3

  • March 12, 2015
March 12, 2015

The PS Centre has asked Jolie Wills, Psychosocial Knowledge Sharing and Research Advisor for New Zealand Red Cross, to share her experiences in and impressions of psychosocial recovery work with the readers of the PS Centre’s website.

Purpose and potted plants

In exploring how we support those working in disaster recovery, I visited tsunami-affected communities in the Tohoku region in Japan and spoke with remarkable people supporting the communities of Fukushima where regions are still uninhabitable due to the nuclear radiation leak; residents now live in temporary accommodations away from their home communities.

I am told that locals are a proud people, with long-standing connections to the land and agriculture. They are also described as naturally shy, with their kin and social ties built over many generations. Whilst attempts have been made to co-locate community groupings in the temporary accommodation wherever possible, the community make-up has changed radically with many of the younger generation leaving the area.

Those in temporary accommodations often find it difficult to bond with the disparate people who make up the temporary community, due to both the sense of impermanence and never before needing to be gregarious in nature. Social isolation is a concern, considering the fragmentation of the original communities and lack of space for hosting visitors within the temporary abodes.

Most striking perhaps is the radical change in the intergenerational composition of the community. Where before multiple generations cohabited, now many of the younger generations have moved away from the area as a result of the dangers of radiation and limited vision for a future within the disaster area.

The average age in the temporary accommodation dwellings is over 70 years old. This is a telling example of the disruption to the social fabric of communities after a disaster, where family elders played an important role in the life of their extended families in a myriad of ways.

Connection to the land and agriculture has also been severed. Crops were once lovingly tended, and the bounty of the harvests provided a valuable contribution to the family, playing a role beyond physical sustenance. Many aspects giving meaning, value and a sense of purpose to the lives of the elder generation have taken a significant blow.

Dusting off the archives of my mind, I was reminded of a study that left a lasting impression when I studied psychology many moons ago, and it went something like this: Residents in a retirement community facility were given a potted plant for their room and were randomly divided in two groups. The first were told that the potted plant was theirs to enjoy and they didn’t have to worry about its care as staff would water and nurture it. The second group were told that the potted plant was theirs to enjoy but its continued care and survival was in their hands. As time passed, the study found that those who were given the role of caring for their potted plant lived significantly longer.

This is not so much a commentary on the benefits of connecting with nature but on the importance of being able to play an active role in our lives – the opportunity to contribute meaningfully. It is sobering then to consider the potential consequences of losing many of the roles and activities that provide purpose, a sense of contribution and meaning for seniors living in the Fukushima district.

So many critical aspects of recovery are intangible and so, in recovering from a disaster and supporting affected populations, we are reminded of how vitally essential it is to consider dignity, meaning and purpose.