It’s no surprise that disasters disproportionately affect older people. What might be a surprise, however, is to what extent—as well as how “invisible” the population remains in terms of data, guidelines, and overall understanding.

file0001532928723-1024x766Older individuals are more vulnerable in disaster situations. As our world populations ages, it makes disaster preparedness and response even more critical.Even though Jenny Campbell, MA, MSW, PhD, and consultant to Grantmakers in Aging, had worked in the field of aging since the late 1970s, she was still unprepared for how quickly Hurricane Katrina turned vulnerabilities into potentially lethal situations.

She wasn’t a first responder herself, but the stories kept appearing: A seemingly stable senior would come in for assistance, and after a couple of days of sleeping on a cot with no air conditioning and lack of access to medication, “suddenly here was an older adult whose health care was rapidly deteriorating,” says Campbell, who served as director of GIA’s Hurricane Fund for the Elderly after the storm. “I really didn’t understand that level of vulnerability until I was in the middle of it.” It was also unfathomable, she says, that anyone could drown in a nursing home bed—and yet it happened. One in five of those who died were found in hospitals and nursing homes.

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; when Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, a third of those who died were over the age of 60, even though that age group accounts 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.

So why does it keep happening? Sometimes meeting the needs of other age groups is considered a higher priority. Sometimes older adults are rendered invisible because they were isolated at home rather than out working or in the community when the disaster hit. Sometimes, due to lack of mobility or other impairments, they are unable to reach sites for needed assistance. And sometimes, they are reluctant to evacuate and leave all that’s familiar.

“I’m not sure that most funders realize that older persons suffer the most in disasters,” says David P. Whitehead, Senior Vice President and Chief Development Officer, AARP and AARP Foundation. That doesn’t mean, he says, that funders just need to give more to ensure the needs of older adults are met. It’s also that too many trust that funds given to disaster will help all people affected, including the seniors.

“But as we found out in Haiti and Katrina, large pockets of people are not getting the aid they need,” he says. “We have to pay careful attention that the needs of all people are being met.” When considering funding various efforts, the AARP Foundation will specifically ask organizations how they plan to meet the needs of older adults. “And if they don’t have an answer,” he says, “that is the answer.”

Funders interested in mitigating the suffering of older adults in disasters could employ a variety of tactics:

  • Fund studies and efforts that specifically consider the needs of older adults—and put into practice lessons learned from previous disasters. A 2013 report from HelpAge International confirmed previous research that only one percent of humanitarian funded projects target older people. Out of 2,800 project proposals submitted to the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP, led by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), according to HelpAge International, only 60 project proposals included at least one activity targeting older people, and only 30 of these were actually funded. And yet, older people make up as much as a quarter of the population in some emergency contexts.  Read more about a study that was funded to explore how Hurricane Sandy impacted older people here.
  • Fund the collection of aggregated data to ensure that the needs of all parts of a population are being served. At current, for example, domestic violence data is not collected regarding people who are over the age of 49, Brown says. As a result, sexual and gender-based violence against older people—especially in conflict situations—can be an overwhelming and heartbreaking issue.  
  • Support efforts to include guidelines for senior adults in disaster preparedness, relief, and recovery. Better yet, include older adults in the development of such guidelines and technical resources.
  • Fund initiates that help senior adults be part of providing services rather than just receiving assistance. A HelpAge project in Haiti, for example, trained those in their 60s to help those in their 80s, “acting as social workers to the oldest old, making sure they were connected to the services available,” Brown says. 
  • Ensure that those involved in immediate disaster relief have supplies specifically for older adults. Those might include, for example, medicines for common ailments such as diabetes or hypertension, and aids for mobility, hearing, and eyesight.
  • Support efforts to include older people in food security and livelihood assistance programs. All too often, they’re excluded, even though they may be helping supporting family or community members in addition to themselves. 
  • 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 people 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 who have already worked in this area. On the list: the AARP Foundation, Altman Foundation, the New York Community Trust, the John A. Hartford Foundation, and the Hurricane Fund for the Elderly.

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. At current, 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 service, Campbell says. They may also lose pets. There’s a 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.
  • In the United States, there’s an assumption that government services will cover whatever a senior needs, but it’s not necessarily the case. While securing funding for seniors following Hurricane Katrina, Campbell says time and again, she received pushback from foundations who believed assistance for senior adults would be readily available elsewhere.
  • Rather than just a liability, older adults can be a great asset in times of disaster. “The fact is, they’re sometimes the best resources for knitting a community back together again,” says Bethany Brown, Policy Director at HelpAge USA—an arm of NGO HelpAge International, which works in 75 low and middle-income countries worldwide.  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.

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