For a long time, elderly people have not been the focus of attention in situations of humanitarian crises or displacement. Although UNHCR and other agencies have already recognized that older people are amongst the most vulnerable groups and have specific needs in displacement situations, they are still insufficiently included in humanitarian programmes. Research by HelpAge International and IDMC has shown that elderly people are only rarely consulted within IDP populations and are regularly overlooked in humanitarian operations and policy. However, not only are their rights and needs not assessed sufficiently, but also the contributions they make in such situations remain mostly unseen.
Especially in situations of displacement, older people are among the most disadvantaged.While older IDP’s and refugees share many of the problems that other displaced people have, they additionally face various age-related issues in each stage of displacement. In a situation where families or communities are forced to flee their homes, older people often stay behind. One reason can be the lack of mobility: They might be ill or not in a condition to undertake a long journey and are worried to put the rest of the family’s flight at risk. Another common reason to stay behind is that older persons can be reluctant to leave their homes and choose to protect their main possessions such as lands, houses and livestock. However, this involves the absence of important assistance and the lack of provision of essential needs, as abandoned areas are often cut off from essential supplies. Being exposed to violence, natural disasters or other sorts of conflict situations are then additional risks.
On the other hand if older people decide to flee, they are also exposed to several dangers relating to their age. The likelihood of getting separated from their families while fleeing is higher for elderly people than for younger family members as older people’s physical condition might force them to stay behind at some stage, with the risk of staying alone without support or supplies. As a result of separation, many end up in a different place than their family members and the process of finding their families again can be difficult. This can result in social isolation, upheaval or loneliness for these older persons.
To return from displacement also implies specific problems. Especially when elderly people are separated from their families, old returnees lack the necessary abilities to rebuild their lives or take care of themselves alone. Not only lack of resources but also a lack of physical abilities are obstacles to return to their homes.
In displacement, older people often have limited access to basic necessities. For example, they might not be able to attend food distribution in camps, because of their physical constraints. Urgent medical care for age-related illnesses might not be given, increasing their vulnerability further. To benefit the younger people, the elderly often put their own needs behind, while these already tend to be assessed less adequately. Language barriers can constitute another problem especially for older refugees and IDP’s of ethnic minority groups, resulting in further isolation and the lack of adequate care.
These are only some of the various facts that call for a specific inclusion and awareness of the elderly in programmes of support for displaced people around the world. It indicates that they are usually not the priority target group in the implementation of emergency or humanitarian programmes and therefore remain without adequate care. It also testifies ignorance of the contributions that older people in such situations make. They often take care of children or support the family households in other ways. Instead of using their knowledge and skills to improve the general situation, they are often seen as an additional burden to the overall difficult situation, resulting in further isolation and the lack of care needed.
By Laura von Schlabrendorff