Older people are particularly vulnerable and face specific threats from human-made and natural disasters. Their needs are very different from those of other groups, such as children.

Natural disasters are increasing in frequency and now affect well over 200 million people every year.

Wars and conflict such as those in Syria, Afghanistan, North Africa, Darfur and DR Congo also continue to affect millions of people. 

Older men and women are some of the most vulnerable people in disasters and conflicts. A global ageing population means more and more will be affected.

Recent events have shown the disproportionate impact of natural disasters and conflict on older people:

  • 80% of the "extremely vulnerable individuals" remaining in camps in northern Uganda's Lira district in 2007 were 60 or older.
  • 71% of those who died in hurricane Katrina in 2005 were 60 or older.

By 2050, the number of people over 60 will triple from 650 million (11% of the world population) to two billion (22%). By then, older people will start to outnumber children under 14. Over 80% of the world's older people will be living in developing countries (compared to 60% today).

SYRIA - Death Tolls from Long Term Illnesses, Often of the Edlerly, Mean the True Syria War Toll Would Be "Far Higher"

27 March 2013 - The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) says unacounted deaths of people in Syria with diabetes, heart conditions and other chronic illnesses mean the true death toll of the war is far higher than the reported 70,000. Many more deaths are happening because the health service has collapsed with one third of hospitals and 90% of pharmaceutical factories out of action.

Older people's needs and vulnerabilities

Older people are particularly vulnerable and face specific threats from man-made and natural disasters. Their needs are very different from those of other groups, such as children.

Restricted mobility and increased vulnerability

Older age brings reduced mobility and muscle strength, impaired sight and hearing, and greater vulnerability to heat and cold. Minor conditions can quickly become major handicaps that overwhelm a person's ability to cope.

Many frail or housebound older people are less able or willing to flee quickly or protect themselves from harm. Older people can struggle to obtain food, travel long distances or endure even short periods without shelter.

Inappropriate food

Emergency food distribution programmes are rarely adjusted to include the particular needs of older people and their specific dietary requirements. Older people need micronutrients, protein and food that is easy to digest.

Rations can be too heavy to carry, packaging too difficult to open. Many older people report being pushed out of the way by more able bodied people.

Inadequate healthcare

Immediately after a disaster, the focus is on first aid. However, in the medium term, health services need to respond to the ongoing needs of older people.

Walking sticks and frames, hearing aids and eye glasses can make all the difference in reaching distribution points, accessing assistance, preparing food or collecting firewood.

Older people also need healthcare for chronic conditions, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, strokes, respiratory illnesses, rheumatism and dementia.

Trauma and isolation

Loss of family members, carers and community ties can leave older people isolated.

Coping with day-to-day life after a disaster can be difficult and some older people report feeling depressed at losing the status they once had.

Loss of livelihoods

80% of older people in developing countries have no regular income and less than 5% receive a pension.

Older people are often excluded from "cash for work" or "food for work" recovery programmes because most aid agencies target younger adults. Micro-credit and other activities that can help older people earn a living are often planned without considering their capabilities.

How older people contribute

Older people contribute immeasurably to their families and communities in various roles, including their accumulated experience and knowledge. They commonly sacrifice their well-being to help their children and grandchildren.

These roles continue and may even become more important in crisis situations. For example, 40-60% of orphaned children in countries severely affected by HIV and AIDS are cared for by their grandparents.