Humanitarian sector failing older people in emergencies, report finds

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A new report finds the humanitarian sector is failing older people in emergencies. Photo by: Betsy Davis / UN Women / CC BY-NC-ND

GABORONE, Botswana — In 2013, 58-year-old William Maeok moved his family to a Protection of Civilians site in Juba, South Sudan, to escape the conflict in the country. But when he goes to collect food aid from the World Food Programme, he faces a problem: Large crowds of young people jostling for entry at distribution points mean he struggles to gain access himself.

“As an older person I do not have that energy to compete with them but I have no choice. Sometimes I end up spending the whole day there waiting for food and there is no one to assist us as older people to get the food,” he said.

A new report by aid agencies Age International and HelpAge International found that the humanitarian world is failing older people like Maeok by not prioritizing them in emergency situations. Researchers say the challenges older people face have been further compounded by COVID-19 and are calling on the sector to act now to change the situation.

“The situation is only getting worse with COVID-19 but also it has just gone on for far too long.”

— Verity McGivern, humanitarian advocacy adviser, HelpAge International

Simply not a priority

Currently, 12.3% of the population living in fragile countries are aged 50 or over, and this number is expected to increase to 19.2% by 2050, according to the report. Despite this, interviews with nearly 9,000 older people affected by humanitarian crises in 11 countries for the report suggested that they are simply not prioritized.

The report found that 20% of older people in emergency situations did not have access to shelter and 35% could not access a toilet. In a press statement, Sisay Seyoum, HelpAge country director in Ethiopia, explained that older people are often not considered when allocating resources in emergencies.  

“Older people have mobility challenges, many cannot see or hear. Because of this, they don’t have access to information about what humanitarian assistance is available and they have to depend on others to get this information,” he said.

Source: HelpAge International

He added that many have severe malnutrition but have no access to nutrition programs, and that food aid is sometimes inappropriate for their needs.

“For example, many older people have few, if any, teeth and chewing is difficult. Wheat and maize are much more difficult to eat than say sorghum or rice,” he said.

Verity McGivern, humanitarian advocacy adviser at HelpAge International and co-author of the report, said that assisting older people is often seen as an issue for specialist agencies to deal with and not something that mainstream agencies need to think about.

“Older people are also typically overlooked in favor of larger, more visible groups within emergencies. In many parts of the world where emergencies are common, older people are still quite a small though growing proportion of the population,” she said. “They may also just be less visible in communities because they have disabilities; they may find it more difficult to get out.”

Peter Deng, head of protection programs at the Humanitarian and Development Consortium in South Sudan, agreed that the humanitarian sector in the country typically does not prioritize older people, with no specialized assistance available and limited funding for projects to support them.

“Some years back one of the NGOs working in the country approached a U.N. agency asking for funding to support older people and they were told quite frankly that funding for older people is not a priority at this time,” he said.

Deng added that the increase in poverty levels among people of all ages has led to “a scramble for survival” which further disadvantages older people.

“I have seen sometimes when we distribute aid to internally displaced persons, those who are younger and stronger do not have that compassion to ensure that older people are catered for first because of their level of vulnerability,” he said.

“It's like the world has forgotten about our older people,” Deng said. “Even they themselves do not prioritize themselves, they say ‘let the younger people benefit.’”

McGivern added that because of the enormous challenges faced by the humanitarian sector, including rising needs and declining resources, “a lot of organizations sort of resort to ‘one size fits all’ programs that can be delivered at scale.”

“But what they can't do is really give the attention that is needed to the specific risks that are faced by people who are marginalized or in situations of extreme vulnerabilities at different stages of life, including older people,” she said.

Source: HelpAge International

Many assumptions and not enough data

In addition to the lack of inclusion, the report found that aid workers often rely on unsubstantiated assumptions about older people because of a lack of data and feedback. For example, they might assume that older people live with their families and have support from them, even though 1 in 5 older people interviewed for the report was living alone. They might also assume that they do not have caring responsibilities, although 63% of those interviewed were caring for at least one child and 44% were caring for another older person.

McGivern explained that collecting and analyzing age disaggregated data often does not happen. From the humanitarian response plans in the 11 countries covered by the report, only three included age-disaggregated data.

“Older people are not being consulted; no one is talking to them which leads to a lack of information and a gap in understanding and all aid workers have to go on is assumptions on older people which are often untrue,” she said.  

While the report draws on needs assessments carried out in 2019, the NGOs warned that the COVID-19 pandemic has propelled the issue to a new level.

Additional data collected by Help Age International found that, because of the pandemic, 42% of older people have reduced the quantity of food they are eating while 37% are finding it harder to access health services.

McGivern noted that COVID-19 is an extra layer on top of long-standing structural and systemic barriers that older people face and presents a specific and significant risk to older people in terms of their health, as well as secondary effects, such as access to food and services.

She said there is an urgent need for humanitarian actors and donors to start mainstreaming older people in their work, strengthen data collection and analysis, and consult older people.

“The situation is only getting worse with COVID-19 but also it has just gone on for far too long,” she said.

Maeok agreed, saying the situation for him and other older people living in Protection of Civilian sites in South Sudan is currently very bleak.

“We do not have money, we are destitute and there is no agency that comes to support us as older people,” he said.

About the author

  • Rumbi Chakamba

    Rumbi Chakamba is an Associate Editor at Devex based in Botswana, who has worked with regional and international publications including News Deeply, The Zambezian, Outriders Network, and Global Sisters Report. She holds a bachelor's degree in international relations from the University of South Africa.