Rebecca Rita is among the fortunate survivors of a powerful typhoon that lashed through central Philippines in November 2013, but the 62-year-old, who has heart and liver problems, remains vulnerable to the negative impact of future disasters.
Because of age-related factors such as poor eyesight, hearing and mobility, older people tend to be relatively isolated, making them one of the most vulnerable when disasters strike. Poverty and discrimination play a factor as well.
“Over the coming decades, the world will face increasing disaster exposure [and it] will be happening alongside the global population living much longer,” Clare Harris, the group’s disaster risk reduction resilience adviser, told Devex. “Without action to respond to the needs and capacities of older people in disaster risk management, we will not be able to avoid increasing disaster risk as the global population ages.”
The index — the first of its kind — notes that apart from natural disasters, internal conflicts, dangerous environments, and insufficient health services and social protection make the elderly extremely vulnerable to disasters. As such, Somalia, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan — conflict-torn countries with weak health and social protection systems — top the index.
Tellingly, Japan placed 133rd out of the countries surveyed despite being one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world. This seems to suggest there are effective ways to protect the elderly from disasters and catastrophes.
“[Increasing disaster exposure] doesn’t have to translate into increasing disaster risk if we can act now to protect older people in disasters,” Harris, who co-authored the report that accompanied the index, explained. These efforts, she added, need to happen in “day-to-day decision-making to reduce vulnerabilities and underlying risks.”
The expert also hopes the index, which HelpAge will present at this weekend’s U.N. World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, will contribute to the larger effort of designing a more inclusive DRR framework to replace the Hyogo protocol.
The ‘old’ at the heart of the ‘new’
With the international development community preparing to release three new global agreements this year — DRR framework in Sendai, global climate agreement in Paris and the post-2015 development agenda in New York — stakeholders need to ensure the plight of older people is considered and addressed, Harris said.
The risk of excluding the elderly is that we have “frameworks which do not address the reality of an aging world … [and are] ineffective in their ambitions as they do not consider a growing proportion of the global population,” she added.
One way to ensure the elderly’s needs are represented in these new frameworks is to involve them in the process.
“Negative connotations have been associated with aging and older people, and others have often not been able to look past this to the real contributions that older people can make,” Harris said, adding that older people can very much play a central role in crafting and implementing the new DRR framework in various ways.
First, given their years of experience and expertise, they may “hold important information on past disasters,” including “who was affected and how [or] who was vulnerable and why,” particularly in areas where concrete data is hard to come by. Harris shared that “understanding this history of risk is very important in developing disaster management plans” and “how these trends may shift in the future.”
Older people can also “play active roles” in disaster preparedness, especially since they have relatively more free time to take part in activities such as first aid training, counseling support, search and rescue, needs assessment, and communications and advocacy.
Apart from these approaches, HelpAge is staunchly pushing for Charter 14, sanctioned by the United Nations, to encourage development stakeholders to include older people more effectively in DRR efforts at various levels. The charter highlights 14 goals that stakeholders can follow to effectively include the elderly in DRR solutions.
“If older people’s needs and contributions are included in all of these processes, we can reap the benefits of global aging,” Harris concluded. “We can have societies where growing old is not seen as negative, where older people are protected from disasters, where their day to day needs are met and their knowledge, skills and contributions are valued by society.”
In what other ways could the elderly contribute to more inclusive disaster risk reduction, climate change and post-2015 development frameworks? Let us know by leaving a comment below.
Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.