Overview

Disasters disproportionately affect older people. Yet, this population is often “invisible” in terms of data about risks and needs, guidelines, planning and overall understanding of their unique needs during a disaster. This is gradually changing as the overall population ages and greater awareness about the needs for older adults is determined. However, seniors continue to be the group most vulnerable to loss of life in disasters.

Members of Coast Guard Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami and Coast Guard Tactical Law Enforcement Team South rescue an elderly woman and her husband along with their pets after their home was flooded by Hurricane Florence, in Brunswick County, North Carolina, Sept. 16, 2018.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Trevor Lilburn)

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, older adults composed only 15 percent of the population in New Orleans. But they made up 70 percent of the deaths related to the storm. It’s a familiar story.  The majority of the identified victims of the 2018 Camp Fire were over the age of 60. Of the 59 victims who have been identified, the age range tells the story: three were under 50, four were 50-59, 16 were 60-69, 16 were between 70 and 79, 15 were 80-89 and five were 90 and older. When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, a third of those who died were over the age of 60, even though that age group accounted for less than 10 percent of the population in the hardest-hit areas. During Hurricane Sandy, half of the victims were older adults. And with the 2011 Japanese tsunami, two out of three who died were in the older age group.

There is no consensus worldwide as to what constitutes an older adult. In the U.S., and in many Western countries, the typical retirement age or ability to access a pension –usually 60 or 65—is used as a measurement of elevation to “senior citizen.” Yet, the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) welcomes membership from those 50 and over. These age designations do not work in many Global South communities where limited access to health care means that life expectancy is much lower. The United Nations uses 60 and older as its definition, but some health researchers indicate that it should be country specific, and perhaps as low as 50 for some countries in Africa, based on life expectancy.

One in ten people worldwide are over 60. According to the United Nations Population Fund, “In 1950, there were 205 million persons aged 60 or over in the world. By 2012, the number of older persons had increased to almost 810 million. That figure is projected to more than double by 2050, reaching 2 billion…The population aged 60 or over is growing at a faster rate than the total population in almost all world regions. Globally, the population aged 80 years or over is growing faster than any younger age group within the older population. The population of centenarians, those aged 100 years or over, is growing fastest.”

This increasing number of older adults means that emergency planners, service providers and philanthropy need to take the specific needs of seniors into account when planning disaster preparedness, response and recovery. To start, this means understanding why and how older adults are more vulnerable in a disaster.

There are a number of reasons older people are more vulnerable during a disaster. They may be isolated and stay primarily in their homes, with few people who check on them. In the August 2003 heat wave in Paris 79.6 percent of deaths occurred in individuals aged 75 years and over. August is a typical time of year for families and many service providers to be on vacation and away from the city. This meant when the unusual temperatures hit, these individuals did not get notified or have someone available to check on them.

Additionally, there is a link between poverty and old age, so older adults may not have the financial resources to prepare for a disaster or to carry out an evacuation. The National Council on Aging states, “Over 25 million Americans aged 60+ are economically insecure—living at or below 250% of the federal poverty level (FPL) ($29,425 per year for a single person). These older adults struggle with rising housing and health care bills, inadequate nutrition, lack of access to transportation, diminished savings, and job loss. For older adults who are above the poverty level, one major adverse life event can change today’s realities into tomorrow’s troubles.”

Similarly, for some older individuals, especially those of a more advanced age, mobility can be an issue; they may not be able to drive or walk to a site for assistance/evacuation support. During a tsunami for example, individuals must move to higher ground very quickly and not all older people are physically capable of running.

The impact of past disasters plays a role too. During Hurricane Katrina, a number of older residents remembered Hurricane Betsy and felt that they would survive Katrina since they had made it through Betsy, so they did not evacuate.  Similarly, during Hurricane Sandy — which followed a comparable path to the prior year’s Hurricane Irene that had had very little impact in New York and New Jersey –- people chose to ride out the storm that had much more significant impacts.

In Katrina, as with many other New Orleans residents, and common across many other senior populations, a significant percentage did not own vehicles yet there were no buses provided for evacuation. This is particularly challenging for older adults living in rural communities where transit resources are scarce and distances to evacuation shelters, safety or resources greater.

Key Facts

  • We are an increasingly older population—well beyond just the large number of Baby Boomers in North America. According to the United Nations’ “World Population Ageing 2013” report, population aging is taking place in nearly all countries worldwide. “Globally, the number of older persons (aged 60 years or over) is expected to more than double, from 841 million people in 2013 to more than 2 billion in 2050,” the report states. In addition, the number of older people is expected to surpass the number of children for the first time in 2047. Currently, about two-thirds of the world’s older persons live in developing countries.
  • Dementia and cognitive loss can quickly take hold in times of stress. This can cause confusion and lack of ability even in seniors who were relatively independent prior to a disastrous event.
  • Community and support systems are essential for recovery. Older adults are often separated from caretakers or other familiar faces to receive services. They may also lose or be separated from their pets. There’s a general lack of understanding that this type of separation can increase vulnerability and decrease resilience.
  • Vulnerability of older adults in a disaster is not only a problem in developing nations. Older people can be marginalized anywhere. And whether the nation is developed or established, as young adults increasingly migrate to urban areas, older adults will likely remain in more rural parts, adding to possibilities of isolation and increasing vulnerability. Support services and transportation are often limited in rural communities.
  • In the U.S., there’s an assumption that government services will cover whatever seniors need, but that is not necessarily the case. The lack of comprehensive health care, services and decreasing financial resources, means that seniors’ needs may not be covered comprehensively.
  • The experience of older adults can be a great asset in times of disaster. That’s especially the case when it comes to looking out for orphans and other vulnerable children. Older adults also may have experience and insight, having survived previous disasters. The seniors of one island in the Indian Ocean, for example, helped keep the entire community alive when they saw the island’s animals running for the hills—a sign of the impending disaster.

How to Help

  • Ensure that those involved in immediate disaster relief have supplies specifically for older adults. Those might include, for example, prescription and over-the-counter medicines for common ailments or aids for mobility, hearing and eyesight.
  • Fund studies and efforts that specifically consider the needs of older adults—and put into practice lessons learned from previous disasters. A 2016 report from HelpAge International confirmed previous research that only 1-2 percent of humanitarian funded projects target older people. And yet, older adults make up as much as a quarter of the population in some emergency contexts.
  • Fund the collection of aggregated data to ensure that the needs of all parts of a population are being served. Almost every disaster-related issue – housing, health care, transportation – affects seniors. Ensure that data is being collected comprehensively and recommendations are implemented to support the needs of elderly populations.
  • Support efforts to include guidelines for seniors in disaster preparedness, relief and recovery. Include older adults, value and implement their insights, in the development of such guidelines and technical resources.
  • Fund initiatives that help older adults be part of providing services rather than just receiving assistance. Too often, disaster responders discount the value that seniors can provide as volunteers or paid staff. Rather than providing services to them, work with organizations that support service delivery with seniors.
  • Support efforts to include older people in food security and livelihood assistance programsAll too often, older individuals are excluded from such programs, even though they may be helping to support family or community members.
  • Fund local initiatives for outreach before, during and after disasters, particularly targeting those who live in rural areas or are otherwise unable to make it to assistance sites on their own. Older adults in some countries have higher rates of illiteracy and may lack survival skills (such as being able to drive or knowing how to swim). Community efforts can help alleviate these challenges and build resilience.
  • Partner with foundations and organizations who have already worked in this area to become better informed and prepared. On the list: the AARP Foundation, National Council on Aging, Grantmakers in Aging, the Altman Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the John A. Hartford Foundation and the Leading Age.

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