Authorities are trying to prevent these “solitary deaths,” but their efforts have been hampered by a lack of communication and confusion over responsibilities.
In some cases, officials are simply unaware that people are in need of help.
“Many do not want to tell about the family members with disabilities,” a Yokohama city worker said.
In one recent case, the bodies of a 77-year-old woman and her 44-year-old son, who had polio and a severe intellectual disorder, were found in a residence in Yokohama’s Asahi Ward, Kanagawa Prefecture, in December.
Police said the mother had refused support from others.
However, she seemed to have been signaling that she desperately needed help at home.
Her family had built a two-story house on a hill about a 10-minute walk from a train station 29 years ago.
Neighbors said members of the family never joined neighborhood associations and were not very friendly.
The son attended a welfare facility four days a week, but he stopped going after his self-employed father died last summer, according to Asahi Ward Office and the welfare facility.
The mother helped her son eat and change his clothes at home, where he moved around on his knees because he was unable to walk or use his wheelchair indoors.
They slept in a “kotatsu” (a low table with an electric heater) in the kitchen on the first floor.
According to police, the woman died of a ruptured aneurysm in late November, and the son died of respiration failure on Dec. 5.
“We could not do much because the mother insisted, ‘I will take care of my son day and night,’” said the director of the welfare facility, who found the bodies on Dec. 6 when he visited the house with staff.
But was there an underlying cry for help from the proud mother?
She agreed to the ward’s request to sign up for special help in times of disaster for households with disabled family members. Asahi Ward compiled the list by Nov. 30 and submitted it to a group of social workers on Dec. 15.
A social worker in charge of the woman and her son visited the house early in January only to be notified by neighbors that the two had died.
Yokohama in 2007 started to provide a similar list to social workers and neighborhood organizations, but it required prior consent of the residents.
Only about 50 percent of those eligible agreed to put their names on the list, city officials said, adding that the tendency not to disclose personal information has hampered the activities of the social workers.
In a survey the city conducted in 2010 on more than 2,000 social workers, 85 percent said they were unable to collect information from residents under their charge.
Last April, Yokohama started a pilot project to provide lists of people living alone in one part of the city to social workers--without the consent of the people.
The Yokohama government expanded the area to cover the entire city from April.
But households with two members or with disabled family members are not included on such lists.
At an apartment in Tachikawa in western Tokyo, a 45-year-old single mother and her 4-year-old son, who was mentally disabled, were found dead on Feb. 13.
The woman appeared to have died of a sudden illness and the child likely starved to death, Tachikawa police said.
The woman had sought social services and consultations, and she frequently visited welfare offices.
She also sent the boy to a local day-care center after applying for emergency child care. She also registered for family support services run by volunteers.
In addition, the woman had been using a diaper-providing service since June last year once a month, but the city-commissioned company told Tachikawa officials in January this year that the woman could not be reached.
The city’s midterm report on the case said the mother used a child-care service while she was visiting a clinic for treatment of a chronic disease.
Despite being listed on several child-care programs, the woman and her son died solitary deaths.
Tachikawa officials said each service is provided by a different section of the municipal government, and there is no system of information exchange between sections.
Sometimes the problem is simply deciding who will open a door.
In late February, a resident of a public housing apartment building, also in Tachikawa, contacted the residents’ association president, saying there were no responses from a unit in the building. The president then informed Tokyo Metropolitan Housing Supply Corp., the operator of the building.
On March 2, the association contacted the city about a possible accident in the building.
The corporation’s staff members visited the apartment twice, but they did not enter the room because there was no unusual odor, they said.
The city contacted social workers, but they took a wait-and-see approach, deciding that it was the corporation’s job to enter the room.
“We thought the corporation would decide on the urgency for an on-site inspection,” a social worker said.
A week later, on March 7, the bodies of a woman, 95, and her 63-year-old daughter were found in the apartment unit.