When a humanitarian crisis arises, older people are particularly vulnerable to injury, death, neglect, and disease. All too often, they suffer invisibly. I am proud to lead HelpAge International, the only international nongovernmental organization (NGO) working globally on the ground to help older people desperately in need of care and support in emergencies.
But we cannot do it alone. Political leaders, policy experts, and our supporters around the world have a critical role to play. Following recent natural disasters and the resulting displacement in Haiti, Sudan, Pakistan, and East Africa, we are committed to increasing the impact of our emergency relief work with our worldwide partners.
The reality older people face in emergencies often goes unnoticed. Even with global media attention and a marked increase in the public’s appetite for international news, older people remain invisible in crises. In the most recent coverage of famine in the Horn of Africa, for example, few images portrayed the plight of the 12,000 people in the Dodama Camp of Kenya who are over the age of 60.
The statistics of displaced older people do not tell the whole story either. Older people in crisis-affected areas are often unable to travel to the relative safety of a displacement camp. Older people may to be too weak to make the journey to a camp. They may be left behind to look after other vulnerable people, such as pregnant women, small children, and disabled and sick people. In these almost-abandoned communities, the picture our fieldworkers witness is one of isolation and futility.
Our work in East Africa has shown clearly that governments must do much more to tackle the inequality that hampers humanitarian efforts and to ensure that older people start off on a solid footing with support for their unique needs.
On the Edge
The HelpAge network is working to ensure longer-term solutions to support older people. People dependent on land are vulnerable to the increasing effects of climate change. As East Africa shows, climate change will mean
an increased frequency and intensity of emergencies, resulting in scarcities of land, water, and food.
The older people suffering in East Africa need tailored responses so they can continue playing their vital roles in families and communities. For example, if food is given out, older people need special rations that they can chew and digest. Those who design food distributions need to make sure that older people can actually get the food. Older people also have specific health needs and chronic diseases that are often not included in response plans. Without medications for heart disease, diabetes, or high blood pressure, they are further marginalized—as are those who may need mobility and sight aids.
HelpAge is uniquely positioned to respond to the immediate needs we see, but a comprehensive response requires awareness from all organizations responding. UN agencies, governments, and NGOs need to include older people in all of their programs. Toward that end, HelpAge works strategically with partners such as the Sphere Project and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent to support programs that respond to the needs of people of all ages.
HelpAge on the Ground
In the immediate aftermath of an emergency, our specialist staff deliver basic training in gerontology, distribute equipment such as mobility aids and glasses, and provide medication for chronic illnesses in existing medical facilities. We provide cash transfers when appropriate. We also employ psychologists and recruit home-care volunteers to help older people reestablish their lives after the trauma of disasters and conflict.
Equally important, we also establish older peoples associations (OPAs) to enable older men and women to organize and actively participate in the relief and rehabilitation efforts. OPA members in Haiti, for example, receive training in counseling, basic health care, advocacy, and media relations so that they can actively participate in planning and explain their needs to camp and government authorities.
Noncommunicable Diseases and Health
A complement to our humanitarian work is our advocacy work toward improved health care for older men and women. Such protection increases older people’s resilience in all disasters, leaving them better equipped to cope with immediate, otherwise life-threatening demands. Global health care providers are critically unprepared for the health challenges an aging global population presents. Noncommunicable diseases now cause more deaths and disabilities in older people than communicable diseases. In spite of this, older people are the main caregivers in many poor households, and they are often caring for other older people.
We are leading efforts to lobby health service providers and governments to ensure a healthy old age by supporting older people to manage chronic illness. We are working to establish key health priorities for noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, and to improve the availability of age-friendly health care.
We develop national home-based carer programs in countries across Africa and Asia, and deliver health services and training to nearly half a million older people in low-income countries worldwide. We have also built strategic partnerships with agencies engaged in treating chronic and noncommunicable diseases such as blindness, mental health problems/dementia, heart disease, and strokes.
Moving toward a positive future for aging, it is important to reflect on what can be achieved when we work together. I would like to pay tribute to the great impact that the generous fundraising of AARP Foundation and HelpAge USA has had in the response to the Haiti earthquake. Thanks to their robust and swift response, HelpAge has been working with local partners and older people to reconstruct their lives and their country.
More than 200,000 older people in Haiti were affected by the earthquake in 2010. The partnership between AARP Foundation and HelpAge has supported medical consultations for more than 9,000 older people at clinics run by HelpAge’s health partners and the training of more than 200 home-based caregivers, who were trained to provide care in 67 camps. These home-based caregivers pay regular visits to 4,000 of the most vulnerable older people in Haiti’s camps. We are continuing to ensure that 4,700 people aged 65 and over receive short-term cash transfers, and we have set up a job center to make it easier for older people to find work.
One thing is clear from our 30 years of humanitarian work: While older people need targeted support, they also offer wisdom and experience that is vital to recovery. They can make important contributions as caregivers and leaders. It is important that we support their role in families and communities.
HelpAge is dedicated to helping older people move themselves from the edge of disaster, physically, financially, and socially. We will continue our work planning and implementing global emergency relief responses, ensuring that older people are treated with dignity and equality when their lives most depend on it. The rebuilding of Haiti is a positive legacy of our collective response, and we can all look forward to a safer, more resilient future because of it.
Richard Blewitt is the Chief Executive of HelpAge International, a global network striving for the rights of disadvantaged older people to economic and physical security; health care and social services; and support in their caregiving role across the generations.