Newsletter: The Impact of Natural Disasters on Older Persons
Pace University 2011
The NGO Committee on Ageing convened on Thursday, November 4th 2010 for their general meeting at the United Nations Church Center. With UN representative Dr. Rosa Perla Resnick moderating, the focus was on “The Impact of Natural Disasters on Older Persons”.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) analyzed recent emergencies and the projects being undertaken in order to catalyze more effective and impartial response on the ground. Only 4.9% of the projects made any explicit reference to older people. 0.94% included activities that targeted older people and of that only 0.2% was actually funded. According to HelpAge, “Underlying this situation is a widespread assumption that older people’s needs are addressed by general assistance programmes.” Outpatient services such as hearing aids and crutches may seem insignificant but they are instrumental in empowering older persons to take charge of their own circumstances rather than be a victim of it.
Given the paucity of research in this field, the gathering sought to seek and implement methods by which older persons can be involved in pre and post disaster planning. This was the very essence of Professor Adenrele Awotona’s presentation. According to him, there is no such concept as “natural disasters”. Human vulnerability contains elements of human construction, thus disasters are partially man-made. But what is it that makes an older person especially vulnerable in such catastrophes? Factors such as psychological stress and exhaustion, decreased health status, poverty, forced change of residence and depression contribute to making the situation of older persons precarious. However there are discrepancies between what they want and what the experts and NGOs perceive as the former’s needs. Hence this brings about the necessity for older persons to participate in relief and reconstruction efforts so that the funds allocated can be used to address what they really require.
One of the main focal points of any disaster is isolation. As Nadiya Omar, a graduate student from the University of Connecticut highlighted in her discussion of the impact of the Pakistan floods on the ageing population, the loss of dignity in the face of family loss has taken its toll. The family structure in Pakistan is multigenerational with grandparents serving as moral caretakers. But owing to the floods, many families have been forced to leave their elders behind since the latter were incapable of traveling long distances to relief camps. As a result older people have to fend for themselves. However, the idea of begging seems so repulsive that individuals would much rather starve. Even when they attempt to wait in queues for food, they are prone to attacks and being pushed about owing to being perceived as weak.
Under such circumstances, the case of older women is even more acute with exclusion based on gender. Islam is the major religion in Pakistan and in a society where women are normally supposed to be invisible to the public eye, younger women can be seen searching for food desperately. The affected areas are more traditional in nature where women are expected to be confined to their homes. And older women being more abiding by the rules of Islam tend to be isolated by their families within their own homes. Safety, comfort and accessibility become an issue even at relief centers when they have to use public latrines and gender mixed sleeping areas. When clothing is being distributed, it may not be adequate to cover the entire body which is part of the Islamic code of dressing. Nadiya stressed that it is vital that men become favorable to the involvement of women in policy planning given that women are rare in the administrative workforce at the moment. It is truly then help can be appropriately dispatched.
Keeping in mind the situation in Pakistan, it becomes clear that the involvement of local agencies for the reestablishment of local structures has become imperative. Dr. Awotona stresses the need for international organizations to communicate with regional institutions in order to become literate in cultural sensitivity and expectancy. Throughout the whole process, it is important to involve older persons as they serve key functions in terms of years of experience and age appropriate skills. They should not be seen as appendices but activists in the forefront who can and will make a difference.