On the Edge: Why older people are left out in humanitarian emergencies

This blog was contributed by Judith Escribano, Age UK’s international communications manager:  

I’ve been caught up in earthquakes in El Salvador and Peru, witnessed the aftermath of hurricanes in Haiti and Honduras and been held up by guerrillas in Guatemala and paramilitaries in Colombia.  I’ve seen communities recovering from conflict in Latin America, Asia and Africa. But I’d never seen an older person playing an active role in the recovery of their community until I came to Age UK.

Why is that?  I’ve been working in development for nearly 20 years. And I started my career working as a Care Assistant for the elderly in a residential home. Yet somehow, I had never made the connection. I had never realised that older people might have different needs in an emergency and that general aid distributions might not be appropriate.

After the tsunami, 75-year old Sri Lankan Perumal told us that he wasn’t going to bother queuing for aid: ‘I’ve been pushed out on earlier occasions and have fallen on the ground. I know I will get nothing this time round too. The fastest get the food, the strongest wins. Older people and the injured don’t get anything.’

I find that shocking, but having witnessed chaotic distributions where aid gets thrown out of the back of helicopters or trucks, and people jostle to get to the front, I suppose it wasn’t that surprising either.

Fortunately, most humanitarian agencies don’t organise aid distributions in that way. They are orderly and organised. But are they appropriate for all people, including those in later life?

  • Do they provide seating for frail older people or those with disabilities?
  • Do they ensure the packaging can be opened by those with arthritic fingers or weak hands?
  • Do the packages contain foodstuffs which can be eaten by people who may not have their own teeth? Is the food easy to digest?
  • Are the packages too heavy for a weaker older person to carry?
  • Does their healthcare meet the needs of those with chronic health conditions?
  • Do they distribute walking aids, glasses or hearing aids?

More importantly than that – do they actually identify older people? Do they consult them?  AgeUKand HelpAge International do all this and more. Ask yourselves whether the agency you support can say the same. Ask yourselves whether the UK Government is doing enough to assist older people following humanitarian emergencies.

  • Find out more about older people in emergencies at our party conference evening reception alongside HelpAge International. For more information visit http://www.helpage.org/
  • Age UK and HelpAge International are launching a report On the Edge: Why older people’s needs are not being met in humanitarian emergencies . To request a copy, please send an email to international@ageuk.org.uk
  • Age UK works in over 40 developing countries through its sister organisation, HelpAge International.
  • Together, we support over 2,400 Older People’s Associations, made up of active, older citizens.
  • For further information about our work, please visit the international section of the Age UK website or the website of our sister organisation, HelpAge International on www.helpage.org

2 thoughts on “On the Edge: Why older people are left out in humanitarian emergencies”

  1. This is a great post there is no point in just poviding aide it needs to be follow through and sustained.This is now a massive consideration for me when making donations and offering support in the future – Good point well made

  2. This is a really interesting post, as a relative young man of 38 who has over the last few years lost the last of my Grand parents, I depise the lack of respect and in some cases care given to older people. These people have not only gathered great knowledge over their years that could be of huge benefit to their communities but have also suffered hugely in order to make the world a better place for all future generations.

    In some cultures the ‘elders’ are treated with great respect and in awe, the rest of the world especially the West, should learn from this. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing your experiences.

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