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Aid Agencies Disregard the Elderly in Wars and Disasters | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An elderly man walks past a damaged building in the rebel-controlled area of Maaret al-Numan town in Idlib province, Syria, December 21, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Aid agencies and donors must address the chronic neglect of millions of older people affected by wars and natural disasters when they convene this month for the world’s first humanitarian summit, a charity said on Tuesday.

The call follows a survey of older people affected by conflict in Syria, Ukraine and South Sudan in which the vast majority said they had not been consulted about their needs.

Two thirds of the 300 older people interviewed by HelpAge said they did not have enough information about what humanitarian assistance was available to them.

One of the most neglected issues during wars and disasters are old people. Humanitarian interventions often ignore older people’s special needs, using systems that discriminate against them and, on occasion, undermine their capacity to support themselves.

“Older people are particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes, but they are often invisible to those providing aid,” said Marcus Skinner, HelpAge International’s humanitarian policy manager.

Although an ageing global population means increasing numbers of elderly are likely to be affected by crises, Skinner said the issue had been sidelined at the May 23-24 World Humanitarian Summit.

Almost half of those interviewed said health services did not provide care for their age-related conditions, and a similar number said they felt anxious, hopeless or depressed most of the time.

Disabilities can make accessing help a major problem. “How am I supposed to get this help if I can’t even leave the room?” Warda, an 85-year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon is quoted as saying in a report.

HelpAge said that, contrary to popular perception, many elderly affected by conflicts and disasters are not looked after by their families.

Families often become separated during crises, leaving older people to cope without the support network they used to rely on.

A quarter of those interviewed lived alone and 44 percent did not have anyone to help with daily activities.


The charity also stressed the urgent need to tackle gaps in healthcare for the elderly during crises, including access to medication and help for psychological distress.

More than two thirds of respondents had more than one chronic health condition, most had poor eyesight, nearly half had poor hearing and almost a third had a physical disability.

The report explains how elderly people are forced to flee their homes, interruption to treatments for common conditions like hypertension or diabetes can lead to disability or death.

HelpAge said it was deeply concerned by the high levels of depression and anxiety revealed in the survey, adding that the mental health of elderly people caught up in crises remained a blind spot for aid agencies.

“I cry at night and ask God if I can die early. When a person loses their health and the ability to move, they lose everything,” said Warda.

Tatiana, a 67-year-old Ukrainian woman who can barely walk and lives in fear of a bomb falling on her house, described “constant feelings of despair and powerlessness”.

Worldwide there are 928 million people over 60, according to U.N. data. Two thirds live in low- and middle-income countries where disasters are most likely to occur.

The over-60s are expected to make up around 22 percent of the population by 2050, up from 12 percent now.

The report suggests ways to enhance the capacities and contribution of older people in emergencies, and explores the wider issues relating to older people in humanitarian crises. These range from globally agreed principles of social and civil practice and global demographic changes, to the physical impact of the ageing process, common images and assumptions held about older people, the key problems they face, and the gender dimensions of their needs.