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Asian Development Bank

Chapter 5.3 Inclusion

Older people

Photo: Asian Development Bank

Older people make up a significant and growing proportion of the world’s population,+World Population Ageing 2013 (New York: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2013), but they remain largely invisible and marginalised in emergencies. Aid agencies are often insufficiently aware of older people’s needs, or treat them as helpless, passive recipients of welfare rather than active members of society. Their needs may not be taken into account in disaster planning or response; they are less likely to receive warnings and obtain help in evacuating; they find it harder to go to distribution centres, queue for relief goods and carry those goods away; and emergency stockpiles often lack items which they may need, such as mobility aids or medication for chronic conditions.

5.3.1 Vulnerability and capacity

Ageing makes people more vulnerable physically: older people are frailer and less mobile; they are more likely to suffer from long-term health problems such as heart or respiratory illness, and from physical disabilities such as poor eyesight and hearing. These characteristics reduce older people’s capacity to take action before and during emergencies. They may not, for example, be able to keep their houses properly maintained and hence more secure against hazards, or they may be unable to escape quickly enough to higher ground or shelters when floods or hurricanes threaten. They are more vulnerable physiologically to extremely hot or cold weather. Their chronic health conditions are more likely to worsen during and after an emergency due to poor temporary living conditions and disruption to regular health care.

Socio-economic forces also create vulnerability among older people. Many live alone, isolated from family and community support structures (this has been a significant contributory factor to the high proportion of heatwave fatalities among older people in Europe and North America).+World Disasters Report 2004 (Geneva: IFRC, 2004),, pp. 36–55. Others have become primary carers of their grandchildren, for example where parents have to work long hours, have migrated to seek work or have died. Lack of education and conservative attitudes may limit their capacity to take independent action. Older women, for instance, may be more likely than younger ones to adhere to social or religious customs that discourage them from going far from the house on their own.

Isolation is a major factor in older people’s vulnerability to disasters and their capacity to recover from them. Families, neighbours and social networks play an important role in helping them to prepare for an emergency (for example by securing homes, making sure they receive warnings and helping them to evacuate), during the immediate post-disaster period (for example by going to collect relief supplies for them) and in supporting their psychological recovery after disasters. Displacement to emergency shelters, temporary housing or permanent rehousing often separates them from these social support mechanisms. The creation of appropriate, accessible social spaces (such as community centres and gardens) and opportunities for social interaction (such as cultural events) after disasters may help to restore psychological wellbeing. Some DRR projects establish support groups or ‘buddy’ systems prior to a disaster to assist those without access to social support networks.

In many parts of the world, older people have to remain economically active in order to survive. They are often self-employed or work in the informal economy, though many have limited livelihood options or opportunities. Protecting their livelihood assets is a priority during an emergency, and restoring livelihood activities is essential after the emergency period has passed. Support in building secure and sustainable livelihoods (see Chapter 9) should therefore be an integral part of DRR projects with older people.

Older people also have many valuable capacities, and their knowledge, skills, experience and enthusiasm can be put to good use in DRR and disaster response. In some respects they may be better at dealing with stressful events and crises than younger people. They may well have been community leaders or held other positions of responsibility, and they are economically and socially active – important points that are often overlooked by development and humanitarian organisations. They possess technical skills gained during their working lives. Where they have lived in the same place for a long time, they will have acquired considerable knowledge of their environment and the hazards within it. They are also more likely to have first-hand experience of previous disasters and environmental pressures. They are often the guardians of cultural experience and indigenous knowledge in their communities, and so more likely to possess extensive knowledge of coping strategies.

Participatory approaches (see Chapter 6) are valuable in assessing older people’s vulnerabilities and capacities. VCAs should ensure that older members of the community are identified and their situations understood. Their extensive local knowledge, experience of shocks and stresses and coping skills make them potentially important participants in community risk assessments and in the development of disaster plans. Participation in such processes strengthens a sense of belonging and encourages collaboration between different age groups. The World Health Organisation (WHO) advocates ‘active ageing’ to increase older people’s resilience: this means creating opportunities for them to participate more in society, according to their wishes and capacities, for the benefit of their physical, social and mental wellbeing.+D. Hutton, Older People in Emergencies: Considerations for Action and Policy Development (Geneva: World Health Organisation, 2008), HelpAge International mobilises older people’s associations (OPAs), which provide social support to older people in the community. OPAs have been trained in carrying out risk assessments, giving first aid and providing assistance in emergencies. Older people have been put in charge of assessing needs, distributing food and other relief aid and the construction of shelters and water pumps. Older people’s committees also offer an opportunity for their voices to be heard in the community and by decision-makers. Because singling out older people for special attention can lead to resentment among other members of the community, projects should find ways of helping them to make a greater contribution to their families and communities. This not only brings material benefits for the older people concerned, but can also improve their social status.

Case Study 5.3 An integrated approach to building older people’s disaster resilience

Older people in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are exposed to many natural hazards, including earthquakes, landslides, floods and cold weather, as well as having insecure seasonal livelihoods. In 2009, HelpAge International began working with Youth Ecological Center (a leading Tajik environmental NGO), the Resource Centre for the Elderly (a Kyrgyz NGO) and 20 remote rural communities to build their resilience by integrating development issues, such as food and income security, with disaster preparedness.

Priority concerns were identified by older people and their wider communities. Some 300 community members (half of whom were older people) were given training in community-based DRR. They shared the knowledge in their communities and used it to produce emergency plans and develop small-scale mitigation projects; through this they also built up better links with local disaster management organisations. Greenhouses were built to grow a wider range of crops and vegetables through the harsh winters, which improved nutrition as well as giving protection against food price rises. Solar panels were installed in communal facilities, reducing fuel costs and providing warm social spaces for older people’s groups to meet. Young people from the community installed insulation in older people’s homes.

HelpAge International, ‘Case Study: Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Risk Reduction with Older People in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan’, unpublished paper, undated.