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In an aging Japan, elderly are hardest-hit by quake and tsunami

The elderly couple fled their home on foot as the warning sirens blared. But they could not keep up with their neighbors and fell behind as the tsunami rushed in.

Nearly a week later, Taeko Kanno, 71, and her husband are still missing.

"I think there is no hope," said Katsuo Maiya, Kanno's brother-in-law. "I can't find them. The only thing I can do is wait until the military collects their bodies."

As collecting bodies increasingly becomes the focus of crews working along Japan's devastated tsunami coast, it's clear that Friday's twin disasters feared to have killed more than 10,000 have taken their heaviest toll on the elderly in this rapidly aging nation.

Many, unable to flee, perished. Survivors lost their daily medicines. Hospitals lost power and water. Sometimes, the consequences have been fatal.

Fourteen older patients died after they were evacuated to a temporary shelter in a school gym, because their hospital was in the evacuation zone near the Fukushima nuclear plant. Workers are scrambling to prevent a meltdown after the disaster knocked out the reactors' cooling systems.

Japan's relatively large elderly population presents a particular challenge for rescue and relief in what is already a disaster of epic proportions.

About 23 percent of Japan's 127 million people are age 65 or over, nearly double the proportion in the United States.

Japan's rural areas have been in decline for years, and many of the small coastal towns hit hardest by the tsunami had seen an exodus of young people moving to cities for work.

Now the low-lying parts of those towns have been flattened, and as much as half the population in some may have been killed. The official death toll climbed over 5,300 Thursday and is expected to top 10,000.

Kanno, the woman who couldn't keep up with her neighbors, comes from one such town -- Rikuzentakata, a port city that was home to 20,000 before the disaster.

When the tsunami surged into Rikuzentakata, her 67-year-old sister Masako Maiya rushed down from her home in the hills with her husband, Katsuo. They only got as far as a bridge. Down below, they saw the town had become a muddy inland sea.

One of Kanno's neighbors told them she saw Kanno and her husband flee, but the couple was slow and had lagged behind. For five days, the Maiyas went from morgue to morgue, looking for the Kannos' bodies. On Thursday, they decided to visit the site where their home stood.

"The house should be around here," Masako Maiya said, stopping in front of a pile of splintered wood and mud.

A pained moan escaped from her husband's mouth. "There's nothing," he said, taking off his glasses and wiping tears from his eyes. His wife began to sob too. Still crying, they turned and walked away.

For survivors, in a still-wintry climate, the battle is to keep the elderly healthy and alive.

A hospital in Tagajo was cleaning off muddy medicine Thursday and trying to keep its 90 patients alive without water or electricity. A large generator and two portable toilets were delivered by the military.

"We've been told we'll get medicine sometime next week," said Daisuke Toraiwa, a physical therapist at the hospital.

The tsunami killed 47 of the 113 residents at a retirement home in the city of Kesennuma. Those who could escaped to the second floor. But many got wet, and 11 more died over the next two days because of the cold, said owner Morimitsu Inawashida.

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