There is not a universally agreed-upon definition of older adults. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “The social aspects of old age are influenced by the relationship of the physiological effects of aging and the collective experiences and shared values of that generation to the particular organization of the society in which it exists.”

The United Nations defines an older person as someone over 60 years of age.

Older adults are often heavily impacted by disasters and humanitarian crises. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had a devastating impact on people of all ages. Still, a December 2022 report from Amnesty International found that older adults in Ukraine were disproportionately impacted by death and injury and could not access housing equally with others after being displaced.

In their report on older people’s experiences of the Ukraine war and their inclusion in the humanitarian response, HelpAge International said: “Due to failures among governments and humanitarian agencies to consider their specific requirements and ensure accessibility and equal treatment, older people often face barriers in accessing accurate and timely information, evacuations, humanitarian aid, and services.”

Hurricane Ian, a Category 5 Atlantic hurricane that made landfall in southwestern Florida in September 2022, became the state’s deadliest storm since 1935. Of those who perished, two-thirds were over the age of 60. This has become a tragic and familiar pattern over the years. Older people comprised two-thirds of those who died in Hurricane Katrina and more than half of the 117 who perished in Hurricane Sandy.

Officials often instruct older adults before a disaster to gather supplies, prepare their residences and evacuate when there is a warning of an impending natural hazard. However, lower-income and socially isolated older people may not have a vehicle or financial resources to evacuate, and services and communication mechanisms are often not established with older people in mind. Older adults’ disaster vulnerability has less to do with frailty or age but rather a variety of environmental and social factors.

Ageism is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or ourselves based on age.” It is pervasive and affects people from childhood onwards. Older adults are often assumed to be frail or dependent and a burden to society, leading to disaster and humanitarian policies and programs that are ineffective and not responsive to their needs and desires.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the pervasiveness of ageism. In March 2020, Dr. Louise Aronson wrote about ageism making the pandemic worse and observed that we might respond differently if COVID-19 put young people, as opposed to older people, at more risk. Some decisions about who should or should not receive ventilator support when ventilators were in short supply included age as a criterion.

HelpAge International documented examples of ageism during COVID-19, including age-based lockdown measures, exclusion of older adults from response efforts, and increased abuse and neglect.

Key Facts

  • The number and proportion of people aged 60 years and older is increasing. The WHO says that in 2019, the number of people aged 60 years and older was 1 billion. This number will increase to 1.4 billion by 2030 and 2.1 billion by 2050. According to WHO, by 2050, 80% of the world’s population over 60 years will live in low- and middle-income countries. In the U.S., the population aged 65 and older was 55.7 million in 2020 and is projected to reach 94.7 million in 2060. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Americans aged 60 and older increased by 33%, from 57.5 million to 76.5 million.
  • Aging presents challenges and opportunities. As people age, they are more likely to experience multiple health-related conditions simultaneously. There will be an increase in demand for health care and long-term care, a better trained and paid workforce, and age-friendly environments. However, making these investments will allow for further contributions from older adults to their families, communities and society.
  • Older adults are not a homogenous group. There is no typical older person. Some people over 70 may have physical and mental capabilities similar to those in their 30s. Others experience declines at much younger ages. Older adults’ lived experiences, abilities and needs are wide-ranging. However, they are often incorrectly grouped together.
  • More than 17 million older adults in the U.S. over 65 are economically insecure. This means living at or below 200% of the federal poverty level ($29,160 per year for a single person in 2023). Furthermore, older women are more likely to live in poverty than men because of wage discrimination and having to take time away from the workforce for caregiving. The U.N. Office for Disaster Risk Reduction says, “Vulnerability is not simply about poverty, but extensive research over the past 30 years has revealed that it is generally the poor who tend to suffer worst from disasters.” A lack of financial resources may prevent older adults from being able to afford to evacuate, secure safe and affordable housing, establish adequate savings, obtain essential medication or stock up on supplies before a disaster event.
  • Community and social support systems are essential for recovery. Older adults are often separated from caretakers or other people who are important to them to access services. For socially isolated older people who rely on a pet for emotional support, an evacuation to a shelter may mean separation from their friend. Older adults often use social ties to cope with challenges and adapt after a disaster.
  • Older adults have strengths that can be a resource in disaster recovery. For example, older adults often provide essential volunteer services, a financial safety net for younger, less-established family members and emotional support to others affected. Following the 2010 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, groups of older people supported displaced family members, counseled neighbors and set up community resources.

How to Help

  • Learn about ageism and work to reduce it. Changing the Narrative, a campaign of NextFifty Initiative, has resources on reframing aging. The Gaining Momentum Communications Toolkit from FrameWorks includes examples of how to reframe. Spend a few minutes taking an Implicit Association Test that measures implicit basis based on age.
  • Recognize the intersectional identities of older adults. Older adults possess identities that are complex and intersect in ways that can exacerbate inequities. For example, women – especially women of color – face significant barriers to economic security as they age. Also, older adults are more likely than younger people to have at least one disability.
  • Fund local older adult-serving organizations. Community-based nonprofits and long-term recovery groups often have important connections and the trust of community members, including older adults. Grant to locally-led entities as much as possible. When granting to trusted international partners with deep roots in targeted countries, more consideration should be given to those that support local and national stakeholders. Also, encourage organizations not traditionally focused on the older adult population to apply an aging lens to their work to mainstream aging in their programs, strategies and policies.
  • In the U.S., engage with Area Agencies on Aging (AAA). An AAA is a public or private nonprofit agency designated by the state to address the needs and concerns of all older persons at the regional and local levels. AAAs coordinate and offer services that help older adults remain in their homes and often have strong relationships with the older adult population and other service providers in the community.
  • Support disaster preparedness for older adults. One study that engaged older Sarasota County, Florida residents found they practiced “survival preparedness” by storing food and supplies but lacked “planning and structural preparedness” because of insufficient awareness and financial resources. Helping older adults and their caregivers or loved ones know how to safely remain at home during a disaster and options for evacuation, if required, can be helpful. Addressing the structural barriers that may prevent older adults from strengthening their preparedness or resilience is also needed.
  • Actively identify and include older adults in program design and implementation. Older adults’ needs and capacities are often overlooked in disaster response and humanitarian action. Collecting and utilizing disaggregated data on age can ensure they are seen. The inclusion of older adults is essential. The WHO Global Network of Age-Friendly Communities is a resource for creating age-friendly physical and social environments which support aging in place and may remove vulnerabilities that create disaster risk.
  • View older adults as assets, not liabilities. Older people should be seen for their contributions rather than as passive recipients of assistance. Older adults have accumulated a lifetime of skills, knowledge and lived experiences that are valuable before, during and after a disaster. This mindset shift can open up new and effective opportunities for funders seeking to engage with older adults.

What Funders Are Doing

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s (CDP) investments in older adults include:

  • $872,336 to HelpAge USA in 2022 from CDP’s COVID-19 Response Fund and Ukraine Humanitarian Crisis Recovery Fund to improve the lives of older people by influencing the UN-led international humanitarian system and three country-level systems to be more inclusive of older people. The project will empower NGO humanitarian actors in Ukraine, Moldova and Ethiopia to deliver age-inclusive humanitarian response and recovery programs and ensure the participation of older people in identifying their priority needs and longer-term recovery solutions.
  • $153,000 to HelpAge USA in 2023 from CDP’s Turkey & Syria Earthquake Recovery Fund to provide high-level technical advice and leadership to the Disability Inclusion Task Team as well as the wider Turkey Refugee and Earthquake Response on upholding the rights of older people in all their diversity.
  • $200,000 to Light Up Lawndale in 2024 from CDP’s Disaster Recovery Fund to serve as the West Side Long-Term Recovery Group’s case management arm as the group works to assist 175 flood-impacted households in Chicago’s West Side to recover their housing and ultimately thrive. The West Side Long-Term Recovery Group places a special case management focus on securing clean-up and muck-and-gut services for older adults, who frequently have limited ability to complete that work themselves before reconstruction can begin.

The philanthropic response to the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented. The Measuring the State of Disaster Philanthropy 2022 report (SODP) by Candid and CDP found nearly $121 billion in giving in 2020, primarily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were countless examples of philanthropy supporting essential services for older adults.

Although overall giving fell in 2021, the 2023 SODP report found that 82% of funding went toward epidemics, mainly for COVID-19. Data from Candid’s database revealed funding for older adults totaled $175.6 million in the U.S. alone. However, in comparison, children and youth received $408.4 million in the same year despite the pandemic disproportionately impacting older adults.

To support recovery from the 2023 floods in their area, the Community Foundation of Santa Cruz County prioritized grants to organizations with deep roots and strong experience serving impacted communities, particularly those disproportionately affected, like older adults. Grants included food deliveries to medically fragile evacuees and increased services for Meals on Wheels.

Through support from The SCAN Foundation, West Health and the May & Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, the Multisector Plan for Aging Learning Collaborative, led by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS), is a learning community that is helping states advance their multisector plans for aging. The 12-month collaborative supports 10 states to build on work already underway in their states.

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