Press enter to search

Why Is Inclusion of Older People Still a Weakness of the Humanitarian Sector?

Approximately 26 million older people are affected by crises each year.

For far too long, however, the humanitarian community has failed to respond to elderly people in accordance with the principles of humanitarianism.  Now COVID 19 has swept the globe, raising the demand for humanitarian relief while simultaneously impeding its delivery, with significant implications for older people.

In a report entitled If not now, when?, Help Age International and Age International show that, despite the existence of inclusion standards, aid agencies are “systematically failing” older people around the world, leaving them unable to access enough food and health care. The proportion of the population aged 50 and over is predicted to expand to 19.2 percent by 2050 in many areas worldwide where disasters are frequent, making elderly people less visible in communities due to  disabilities that limit their inclusion and participation. Yet because of the significant barriers that the humanitarian sector faces, most organisations resort to “one-size-fits-all” initiatives that can be scaled up. In interviews with nearly 9,000 older people afflicted by disasters and socio-economic crises in 11 countries, HelpAge International and Age International revealed that current humanitarian approaches often exclude older people. Another study in South Sudan found that the humanitarian sector often does not prioritise older people, with hardly any specialised aid and insufficient resources for projects that support them.

A lack of reliable data is part of the problem. A primary obstacle mentioned by WHO is the lack of statistics on older people in humanitarian settings. Humanitarian agencies frequently rely on unfounded assumptions about older people due to lack of data and feedback. For example, while it is commonly assumed that older people live with their families and receive assistance from them in most developing countries, in Kenya, approximately 28% of elderly people live alone in rural areas. Because elderly people are rarely consulted, there is a knowledge gap and a lack of information, causing most humanitarian workers to make false assumptions about them.

HelpAge International and Age International report that the humanitarian sector has failed to meet the needs of older persons in disasters, a situation made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Women over the age of 65 fare worse than men, they found, with 58% of women in this age group living alone, having no access to food, and 56% lacking access to healthcare. Data collected by HelpAge International found that,  42% of older persons have lowered their food intake as a result of the Covid 19 outbreak, while 37% have found it more difficult to acquire medical treatment. According to Ingrid Kuhfeldt, regional humanitarian manager for Latin America and Caribbean for HelpAge International, 89% of Venezuela’s 2.1 million older adults live in poverty as a result of a prolonged crisis that has led to severe basic needs shortages. With COVID-19 intensifying elder abuse around the world and some hospitals prioritising the young, it is more important than ever to address this problem.

While the UN is strengthening its ability to collect disaggregated data on older persons, most NGOs continue to struggle. They currently do not collect or communicate this information since many individuals, such as in Venezuela do not consider older people to be a significant demographic, even within communities and families. The ideas, procedures, rules, and regulations in place to safeguard and promote the rights of older people appear to have been ineffectively enforced.

What can be done? Humanitarian actors and donors must immediately begin integrating older people into their activities, increase data collection and analysis, and consult with older people. The  If not now, when?  report on keeping promises to the affected older people in humanitarian disasters gives proposals to humanitarian actors, funders, and agencies for a more comprehensive humanitarian response for older people. The proposed actions include incorporating age into existing gender, disability, and protection mainstreaming policies and action plans; integrating the Humanitarian Inclusion Standards for Older People and People with Disabilities into humanitarian policy, guidelines, and training; and investing in programs that protect elderly persons’ rights and meet their specific needs.

The recently observed International Day of Older Persons increases awareness of the issues that older people endure and encourages the creation of a society that is inclusive of people of all ages. Despite the obvious necessity to establish integrated and comprehensive strategies to the crisis care of older people, this endeavour is currently impeded by a range of factors therefore the humanitarian community must work together with older people to overcome the circumstances that have contributed to their exclusion from humanitarian aid and to uphold its promise to provide humanitarian aid in accordance with humanitarian standards.

We have witnessed how far the reality is from the promise of change for many older people living in the middle of severe crises, and thus how urgent the need for reform is, through giving voices to older people affected by humanitarian crises. “Older, lonely people need humanitarian aid – it’s the most important thing in our lives. Younger people are too busy to pay attention to us. I want our lives to improve, our children to return and for more attention to be paid to older people,” said an 82-year-old woman from Ukraine  in the report, Older Voices in Humanitarian Crises. Ignoring these voices would be a failure of ambition and the World Humanitarian Summit’s goals, as well as a denial of our shared humanity.


Photo by the United Nations and STUDIO WEY on Unsplash