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Elderly people in Mozambique

Credit: Karel Prinsloo/Age International

Older people are being left behind in humanitarian action

27 November 2020
Author: Damian Lilly

Having spent several years working in humanitarian crises it was not so surprising to me that older people often get overlooked in the response.

With limited resources and the imperative to save lives, aid agencies rightly focus much of their efforts on those most visibly in need, such as children and women. 

The humanitarian principle of humanity, however, means that everyone should be treated equally, while the principle of impartiality requires assistance to be targeted where it is needed most, regardless of age. 

In this regard the Covid-19 pandemic has put into sharp focus how older people can be disproportionately impacted by crises. They face the highest risk of death from the virus and significant secondary impacts. However, it is not only in public health emergencies that older people are suffering. They are often hardest hit in environmental disasters and armed conflicts.

The international community is failing in its commitments to protect the rights of older people in emergencies, as a new report by Age International and Help Age International, If not now, when?, shows. It is high time action is taken to prioritise older people in humanitarian action to provide the assistance that they clearly need and deserve.

The specific needs of older people

The report provides the broadest-ever survey of the situation of older people affected by humanitarian crises, drawing on needs assessments conducted in 11 countries, over a 13-month period. It paints a bleak picture about how older people’s needs are not being met. 

Of the 8,883 people assessed: 20% had no shelter, 64% did not have enough to eat, 77% had no income, 26% could not access health services, and 25% had no access to drinking water. 


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Older people are far more likely to live with a disability (40% of those assessed), but rarely are provided with assistive devices. The mental health burden of crisis is particularly acute for older people who face neglect and isolation: a quarter of those assessed said that they could not cope (more so for women than men).

Neglected and discriminated against

Worse still, older people suffer doubly in crises: not only are they disproportionately impacted, but they are also neglected and discriminated in the response. 

A lack of age-disaggregated data renders them invisible in most humanitarian plans while one-size-fits-all programmes fail to consider their specific needs. 77% of older people assessed said they had not been consulted by humanitarian agencies. Two in five older people said that they could not reach aid distribution points independently, often needing the help of friends and family. 

Misconceptions about older people

There are widespread misconceptions about the experience of older people in emergencies, which is contributing to their lack of prioritisation. While it might be expected that older people receive support from family members, 20% said they lived alone. When they do live with family members, they are more likely to be the carer rather than being the one cared for, with 63% saying they look after at least one child. 

Older people are often considered economically inactive and yet they can provide an important contribution to household incomes.

Time for action

While aid agencies have taken action to prioritise the needs of other vulnerable groups, such as women, children and persons with disabilities, older people continue to be marginalised. In 2015, world leaders agreed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the commitment to “leave no one behind”, but this is precisely what is happening for older people. A new approach is long overdue, but will only come about through strong humanitarian leadership and robust action.

The UN secretary-general published a welcome policy note on the impact of Covid-19 on older people early this year. This now needs to be translated into a system-wide strategy to address the gaps in the UN response that Covid-19 has exposed. 

Humanitarian appeals should be based on age-disaggregated data and outline the specific needs of older people, with humanitarian programmes designed to address these needs prioritised in funding decisions. Relevant guidelines and standards exist, but they need to be implemented. 

There is an emerging agenda to promote more inclusive humanitarian action and older people must be at the centre of this. The humanitarian system is facing unprecedented challenges, but it would be unjust to neglect the rights of older people. 

As the global population ages, the proportion of older people affected by crises will grow rapidly making this an unavoidable issue that humanitarians can no longer avoid and must prioritise instead. 
 

About the author

Damien Lilly

Damian Lilly is an independent consultant and produced the analytical report upon which ‘If not now, when?’ was based.