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Q+A – Gaps in aid for older people in conflicts and disasters

[AlertNet, Thursday, 1 October 2009 08:43 No Comment]

Every year, an estimated 26 million older people are affected by natural disasters, with many more hit by violent conflicts. The help older survivors need is often different from that required for younger adults – yet experts agree that despite recent advances, there is still not enough emergency aid tailored to older people’s needs.

The United Nations defines an older person as being aged 60 or over. Globally, the number of older people is growing faster than any other age group. As a proportion of populations in developing countries, older people will leap to 20 percent by 2050 from 8 percent in 2005. Over the same period, the proportion of children will drop to 21 from 31 percent. So by the middle of the century, humanitarian organisations will likely be helping as many older people as children.

On Oct. 1, the International Day of Older Persons, the elderly in more than 40 countries will take part in demonstrations and meetings with governments to call for the protection of their rights. AlertNet spoke to relief agencies ahead of the day and here’s a round-up of the issues:


Sometimes they can’t and sometimes they choose not to. Older people find it much harder to travel long distances, especially on foot, or survive even short periods without shelter. Some are sick or housebound. Younger members of their family or community can’t always help them leave in the chaos of an emergency, or the elderly decide to stay fearing they’ll be a burden to their family or anxious about adapting to a new and unknown environment.


…FOOD? Emergency food rations are generally the same as for younger adults, with no allowance made for the difficulty older people might have in chewing, digesting and absorbing sufficient nutrients. Sometimes older people cannot collect enough water for cooking the food they receive. Moreover, many older people tend to share scarce food rations with younger members of their family.

The number of people dying from nutritional deficiencies in low-income countries is more than 50 percent higher among the over-60s than among children under 14, the World Health Organisation said in 2007.

The old find it difficult to travel to relief distribution points, which are often located on higher ground away from inhabited areas to help aid workers gauge the number and movement of aid seekers. The elderly often can’t or won’t fight younger people in a jostle for supplies and lack the strength to queue and carry heavy loads of food and water to their shelters.

…CLOTHES AND SHELTER? The clothes given out by relief workers are not always culturally appropriate or warm enough for older people who tend to get colder than the young. The footwear distributed is also not always suitable for the elderly who find it harder to walk, especially on uneven ground.

In Banda Aceh, the area most damaged by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, temporary shelters distributed by aid agencies were rarely suitable for older adults as they had steep staircases, poor lighting and no handrails.

Older people can struggle to carry heavy tents or mattresses and some struggle to walk at all. Of the 4,000 older displaced in Darfur surveyed in 2005, 61 per cent had difficulty collecting aid for reasons including impaired vision and being housebound.

…HEALTH CARE? Aid agencies sometimes fail to address older people’s chronic illnesses, such as diabetes. Their health and other needs can be overlooked in assessments and relief operations as they are more likely to be housebound. In Banda Aceh, medical aid staff lacked knowledge and equipment to treat age-related ailments. The same was true in Pakistan in 2006.

The feelings of loss, trauma, confusion and fear common in emergencies can be particularly damaging for older people. In regions hit by frequent natural disasters, famine or conflict, they may have suffered losses, displacement and drastic social change many times. Older people tend to have stronger ties to their homes and communities than younger people, and may experience more difficulties adjusting to a new environment. While aid agencies provide some mental health care in emergencies, a lot more needs to be done.


No. Aid agencies often assume that the elderly are too old to work and exclude them from schemes to help people recover their livelihoods after a disaster. In Sri Lanka, older people received no monetary compensation after the tsunami if they were living with adult children. One older man complained that his son received all the relief material and he got nothing. A common assumption by aid organisations that relief supplies will be shared equally within families is often wrong as social structures collapse in the desperate struggle for resources.


Old people in developing countries are taking on more care of their children affected by HIV and AIDS, and grandchildren where disease or conflict have wiped out or drove away the middle generation. More than half of older people in southern African countries severely affected by HIV care for orphaned and vulnerable children. In Darfur, nearly a third are caring for orphans.

Aid agencies can put to good use older people’s traditional leadership roles in communities and the advice they can provide on how to respond to emergencies as they are likely to have gone through natural disasters or violence before.

Sources: "Older people in emergencies" 2008 report by the World Health Organisation; "World Disasters Report 2007" by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; HelpAge International; Norwegian Refugee Council; Medecins Sans Frontieres.

For more humanitarian news and analysis, please visit www.alertnet.org

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