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In Crises: Left Behind, Left Out

The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to right a longstanding wrong:  the structural neglect of older people’s specific needs in humanitarian crises.

Older people face specific problems trying to survive in emergencies. Some have limited mobility that makes it harder for them to keep up if they have to flee, or that makes it impossible to stand in lines, carry heavy supplies from distribution points, or use a toilet without a grab bar once they’ve reached a temporary shelter. They have higher rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes and arthritis that require treatments that are not routinely stocked and available. They may be unable to eat certain foods without full teeth.

An elderly woman is seen at a camp for internally displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria on March 9, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Supporting older people is not rocket science, and solutions to many of these challenges are simple. But in most humanitarian settings the needs of older people are systematically neglected. Often, they aren’t even counted when governments or humanitarian agencies conduct needs assessments, let alone asked about chronic illnesses or other needs.

This needs to change. Globally, more and more people are living into old age—today over 901 million people worldwide are age 60 or older—and older people make up an increasing percentage of the world population. This same demographic shift is almost certainly happening among people who are forcibly displaced. But we don’t know for sure because the most recent published data are from 2000, when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that at least 8.5 percent of people who were forcibly displaced were over 60. If that proportion holds today—and in all likelihood it is higher now—about 5 million of the almost 60 million people who are forcibly displaced today are over 60.

The lack of attention to the needs of older people can have devastating consequences. Groups like HelpAge International, which provide humanitarian aid to older people, have documented cases of people with diabetes who had limbs amputated or lost their sight because insulin wasn’t available in refugee camps. In some cases, without appropriate food, older people starve. Such groups have also documented that the older people become, the higher their risk of acute malnutrition in crises.

Governments and aid agencies should improve protections for older people as they respond to the World Humanitarian Summit’s slogan, “Leave No One Behind.” A new HelpAge International report, Older People in Humanitarian Crises, makes critical recommendations for how older peoples’ needs can be addressed, among them to collect and provide useful data about them in humanitarian crises. The World Humanitarian Summit can’t fulfill its promise without taking older people into account. 

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