Senior Power: Nihon Elderly

By Helen Rippier Wheeler
Tuesday March 22, 2011 - 08:55:00 PM

You may have noted many old persons in photos from the Tōhoku ("northeast")region, a geographical area of Japan. It occupies the northeastern portion of Honshū, the largest island of Japan. The population estimate of Tōhoku as of 2008 was 9,708,257. The region consists of six prefectures: Akita, Aomori, Fukushima, Iwate, Miyagi and Yamagata. Sendai ,is the capital city of Miyagi Prefecture, and the largest city in the Tōhoku Region. The city of trees was founded in 1600 by the daimyo Date Masamune. Here, abstracted from “Fourteen elderly die after evacuating Japanese hospital,” by Associated Press medical writer Margie Mason (March 17, 2011), is news: 

First came the tsunami, which killed many elderly people unable to flee their homes. Then came the radiation, which forced a hospital to evacuate some 100 older patients. Fourteen did not survive. 

The earthquake-spawned tsunami and the nuclear crisis it created have taken a particularly heavy toll on the elderly in this rapidly aging nation. Many have already died and now those who lived are struggling to survive in cold emergency centers or hospitals without electricity or water and shortages of everything from medicine to adult diapers. 

Many of the rural, seaside towns hit by the tsunami were in economic decline and had seen an exodus of young people, who moved to major cities for work. That may explain why many of those staying in temporary shelters are elderly. At one, a junior high school in the city of Kesennuma (Miyagi Prefecture), a few ointment tubes, bandages and boxes of aspirin and stomach and cold medicines were stacked on a table at a shelter at a junior high school. 

"There's not enough," Keiko Endo, a 58-year-old nurse, said. "It's a problem." Nearby sat a group of elderly men and women, a single kerosene heater doing nothing to warm a large drafty gym in chilly, often snowy weather. 

"The consequence of the earthquake, but more the tsunami, has caused the loss of their prescriptions," he said. "Some don't remember what they were taking, how much, and what was the exact prescription. So that makes things a little more complicated." 

Read: Martin Fackler’s "For Elderly, Echoes of World War II Horrors" (New York Times, March 15, 2011).  


A composition in verse rather than in prose.  

Poetry is a literary genre. Two of my favorite American poets, from two different centuries, as different as can be, are Dorothy Rothschild Parker (1893-1967) and Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830-1886). Parker is best known for her caustic wit and sharp eye for contemporary urban foibles. Truth is Dickinson’s all. Her mysterious verse and perception hold enormous meaning.  

Parker wrote in all genres: poems, short-stories, novels, reviews, screenplays, newspaper columns and reports. Because of the things she said/wrote and how she lived/died, at 74, she is seen variously as clever, witty, offensive, ambitious, unacceptable. Blacklisted in the 1940’s, she left most of her estate to Martin Luther King, Jr.. “Resume” is from her best-selling (unusual for poetry) collection, Enough Rope, published in 1926. 

Razors pain you; 

Rivers are damp; 

Acids stain you; 

And drugs cause cramp. 

Guns aren’t lawful; 

Nooses give; 

Gas smells awful; 

You might as well live. 


The truth must dazzle gradually, wrote Dickinson, who lived until age 56. It is so apt that I have borrowed it for the title of my next book, an unpublishable memoir.  


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant— 

Success in Circuit lies 

Too bright for our infirm Delight 

The Truth’s superb surprise 

As Lightning to the Children eased 

With explanation kind 

The Truth must dazzle gradually 

Or very man be blind— 


But Dickinson could also create sweet ditties, like 

A Bird came down the Walk— 

He did not know I saw— 

He bit an Angleworm in halves 

And ate the fellow, raw, 


And then he drank a Dew 

From a convenient Grass— 

And then hopped sidewise to the  


To let a Beetle pass— 


He glanced with rapid eyes 

That hurried all around— 

They looked like frightened Beads, I thought— 

He stirred his Velvet Head 


Like one in danger, Cautious, 

I offered him a Crumb 

And he unrolled his feathers 

And rowed him softer home— 


Than Oars divide the Ocean, 

Too silver for a seam— 

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon 

Leap, plashless as they swim. 






A poem is a verbal (words!) composition designed to convey experiences, ideas, or emotions in a vivid and imaginative way. It is characterized by condensed language chosen for sound and suggestive power and by the use of such literary techniques as meter, metaphor, and rhyme.  

Must a poem rhyme? Is Parker’s “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” a poem? Does it rhyme and have meter? 

A limerick is an often bawdy (thinkNan tucket), nonsense poem of 5 anapestic lines. Two short syllables are followed by one long one, as in the word seventeen. Edward Lear (1812–1888) was an English artist, illustrator, author, and poet, renowned today primarily for his limericks. His most famous piece of nonsense, The Owl and the Pussycat (1867) was written for the children of his patron. 

A ballad is a narrative poem, often of folk origin, intended to be sung, consisting of simple stanzas usually having a recurrent refrain. The Ballad of Typhoid Mary, for example.  

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote lyric poetry. A lyric poem is not narrative, not dramatic. It expresses subjective thoughts and feelings, often in a songlike style such as the sonnet, 14-line verse form. Poet Louise Bogan (1897-1970) believed that “Lyric poetry if it is at all authentic…is based on some emotion—on some occasion, on some real confrontation.”  

Haiku is a very short Japanese lyric poem of l7 syllables,having 3 unrhymed lines of 5-7-5 syllables, traditionally invoking an aspect of nature or the seasons and often containing an indication of the season. For example, Kazue mizumura’s  


An iced branch falls. [5] 

I see the shattered moonlight [7]

Scatter at my feet. [5] 


Figures of speech are used by poets to enhance their work-- to facilitate communication, 

feeling, emotion. They are good stuff because they serve to seize our attention and to 

inform, sometimes to persuade. Often, they’re simply a pleasant variation. Three of 

the major figures of speech are alliteration, simile and metaphor. 


Alliteration is the repetition of an initial sound in two or more words of a phrase or a line of poetry. It functions to appeal to the reader’s or listener’s ear, and to bind the phrase. For example, William Blake (1757-1827)’s 


Tyger, Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry? 



Simile is a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, dissimilar thing. Two essentially unlike things are compared, usually in a phrase introduced by like or as. For example, from Rita Dove’s WingfootLake(Independence Day, 1964): 

“...the girls like young horses eyeing the track.” Metaphor is a figure of speech containing an implied comparison in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used as one thing is applied to another, dissimilar thing, thus making an implicit comparison. It involves nonliteral use of words. For example, from Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes:” the stiff heart / a quartz contentment / the hour of lead.  

It is possible to overdo use of metaphors. “Come, Captain Age, With your great sea-chest full of treasure! Under the yellow and wrinkled tarpaulin Disclose the carved ivory And the sandalwood inlaid with pearl. Riches of wisdom and years?” (Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn [1876-1959] Contented at Forty, 1916.)  


"Poetry helped me to be a little less stupid as I stumbled through the process," writes Rachel Hadas in Strange Relation: A Memoir of Marriage, Dementia and Poetry
(Paul Dry Books, 2010). The strange relation is Hadas’ spouse, victim at 61 of early onset dementia. As she negotiated the years before George moved to an assisted living facility, reading and writing became her life line. Just to help her manage, she says. "Poetry has always been a way of coping for me ... since my father died when I was 17, I've turned to poetry not only to express my feelings ... but consistently to figure out what I was feeling at a given time." Chapter 3: “ Into the Murky World” is online at National Public Radio’s  




Anne Sexton (1928-1974) explored the meaning of “Courage” in later years, evoking a series of concrete experiences and visual images. The final verse: 


When you face old age and its natural conclusion 

Your courage will still be shown in the little ways, 

Each spring will be a sword you’ll sharpen, 

Those you love will live in a fever of love. 

And you’ll bargain with the calendar 

And at the last moment 

When death opens the back door 

You’ll put on your carpet slippers 

And stride out. 


Eighty-five year old, retired language teacher and Berkeley resident Lenore Waters is a powerful senior who coordinates the French conversation class at the North Berkeley Senior Center (2-4 P.M. Mondays,) volunteers at the Berkeley Rep, and authors books with daughter Jennifer, aka Jennifer Blowdryer, e.g. The Revolution of 1964; Mother-Daughter Poems. 


WISDOM by Lenore Waters, January 2011 


Having lived eighty five years 

Am I ready to sit atop 

A high rocky mountain 


Waiting for pilgrims to 

Make the hard painful climb 


To ask for answers, 

Answers to questions 


Much much older than I? 


The Pilgrim might ask: 


How do I find HAPPINESS? 

Will I ever find another job? 

Why do my children hate me?
Where did I go wrong?
Is Ms or Mister Right 

Around the corner? 


Where do I get on the road of Happiness? 


And I, from my precarious perch 

With eighty five years 

Worth of supposed wisdom 


Will answer 


You’re asking me? 

You’re asking ME? 

Retired social worker, union and YMCA member Irving Kestin shares with us The Staircase: 


The house staircase led quietly to the upper storage area. 

Everything stored over the past 60 plus years by succeeding 

related generations of occupants 

A littered, cluttered area. Walking there meant climbing in between, 

around mounds of furniture, left overs, kitchen equipment. 


At night, whispers wafted downward from the staircase. 

Whispers from those past generations. 

The cat’s soft meow, the dog Tim’s muffled cry of joy. 

Grandmother Thelma’s English accented voice, reciting a poem, 

The muffled bass roar of grandfather Ajax. 

Easier to store than dispose and close the past. 


2 P.M., 4th Monday at the North Berkeley Senior center: Poetry writing with Nancy Wilson 

9 A.M. Thursdays at the North Berkeley Senior Center: Poetry Writing with Berkeley Adult School instructor Davis. Note: BAS tuition is $30.; ask about scholarships funded by the NBSC Advisory Council. 

1-3 P.M. Fridays at the North Berkeley Senior Center: Senior Poets, Old & New with volunteer instructor Neveen. 

7-9 P.M. Second Tuesdays at the Albany branch of the Alameda County Library: Poetry readings featuring local poets followed by open mic. Contact: Dan Hess(510) 526-3720 x17

10:30-11:45 A.M. March 24-April 28, 2011 at the Emeryville Senior Center: Poetry Workshop Instructed by Janell Moon, Emeryville Poet Laureate. Note: There is an annual Center membership fee; ask about scholarships. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011: Celebrate the one year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act 


Helen Rippier Wheeler can be reached at Please, no email attachments or phone calls.