Emergencies and older people

Asia and the Pacific region are impacted by natural hazards to greater extent than any other region in the world. Every year, disasters cause significant loss of life and hinder economic and social development.

In the past five years, the region experience major disasters include floods in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines; volcano eruptions in Indonesia; tsunamis, typhoons and cyclones in Myanmar and the Philippines; and storm surges in Bangladesh, drought and earthquakes in Nepal, for example. During the past decades an average of more than 200 million people have been affected and more than 70,000 people killed by natural disasters each year.[i]

The number of natural disasters is rising and the effects of climate change mean the number of people affected by emergencies is predicted to rise dramatically over the next decade.

Emergencies impact on older people

Emergencies affect most those people who are already vulnerable such as the poor, near-poor and older people. The problems these groups face are compounded by the destruction of their families and communities.

In the chaos associated with the early stages of emergencies, older people are physically less able than most other adults to struggle for foods and other resources. They cannot travel long distances to where resources may be more readily available and find it difficult to endure even relatively short periods without shelter and amenities.

Many older people had problems in accessing relief aid as they are forced to compete with able-bodied people. Additionally, loss of life caused by emergencies results in trauma and grief and creates greater vulnerability, for example through isolation or increased responsibilities caring for survivors.

Older people’s needs in emergency situations

Older people have specific needs in emergency situations. For example:

  • Extra layers of clothing or blankets compared to other adults as circulatory problems make it harder to manage or endure cold temperatures.
  • Appropriate foods given older people’s digestive system and teeth may be compromised by the ageing process.
  • Access to appropriate health services for both communicable and non-communicable disease treatment.  Older people are vulnerable to rapid debilitation from health issues such as diarrhea in the same way children are.
  • Supportive devices such as walking aids and glasses as older people’s mobility and other physical abilities might be impaired.
  • Clothing, pots, pans and other household equipment as well as mattress or a raised sleeping area to avoid acute joint and muscle pain caused by sleeping on the ground.
  • Psychological programs to deal with issues such as the fear of death and burial in a foreign place, as well grief for losses.

Helping older people in emergencies

Preparing for a potential emergency can reduce its impact. Examples of preparedness activities include:

  • Conducting age-appropriate group exercise with members of older people’s associations to ensure older people are healthy.
  • Awareness raising by disseminating information on potential disaster risks via older people’s associations.
  • Facilitating hazard mapping in the community with the older people. This identifies people who are disabled and older people with mobility issues as priorities for in case of a disaster.
  • Initiating community drills in the community with inclusion of older people and other vulnerable sectors.
  • Working with the media and public broadcasting services to provide citizen reports and develop a network that can communicate information about disasters via social media.

Responding to an emergency

How older people help in an emergency

The social knowledge, experience and credibility of older people are critical in identifying and targeting the most vulnerable in a community. Older people can also play an active role in organising and distributing relief materials.

Both older men and older women play crucial roles in emergency situations, such as:

  • Help rescue other older people, children and women, and bring them to a safe place
  • Bring food to stranded older people and residents
  • Set up safety equipment (ropes, improvised life-saving equipment)
  • Responsible for saving some household belongings
  • Take care of children and older people who are unwell
  • Provide encouragement and moral support to families and neighbours
  • Help prepare food
  • Assist in distributing relief supplies
  • Help solicit relief goods

Following the initial emergency response, older people help the community to recover by assisting with damage needs assessment and rebuilding houses.

The psychosocial wellbeing of older people post-disaster is enhanced by encouraging them to get involved in activities and initiatives that help others. Older people who remain engaged develop a sense of self worth and no longer feel like passive victims, therefore alleviating feelings of helplessness or depression.

How the HelpAge network helps in an emergency

The HelpAge network works to ensure older people are included in immediate and long-term humanitarian relief efforts on the ground, and in humanitarian policies and guidelines. Following an emergency, HelpAge International and network organisations:

  • Conduct needs assessment in conjunction with older people’s associations
  • Represent the voice of older people in international relief forums
  • Mobilise support from within the country and internationally
  • Undertake field visits to prepare and distribute relief to the respective communities
  • Facilitate restoring livelihood, income security and protection issues
  • Evaluate the impact of relief interventions

Including older people in building resilient communities

The impact of emergencies can be reduced with a focus on prevention and early action as resilient households and communities have the ability to adapt to changes including disasters and other stresses.

HelpAge builds the resilience of older people and the community through capacity building and advocacy, embedding disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation in long term programming.

In addition, there are several actions governments and organisations can do to improve the lives of older people:

  • Make older people visible in research, planning and implementation of humanitarian and emergency relief responses, ensuring that they are given equal recognition as a vulnerable group, and that their specific needs are met.
  • Ensure that data collection in times of humanitarian crisis assesses the needs of all vulnerable groups, is disaggregated by age and sex, and includes older age groups.
  • Simplify the language of research and scientific studies so people in communities can assess, understand and act on this information.
  • Make preparations for the growth in the number of older people living in countries that are vulnerable to humanitarian emergencies.


[i] UNESCAP (2011) Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011, available http://www.unescap.org/stat/data/syb2011/II-Environment/Natural-disasters.asp

HelpAge is the only international development agency to focus on older people’s specific needs in emergencies and humanitarian crises. Emergencies we responded to include:

Timely and inclusive emergency response (TIER) project

The project aims at timely and effective emergency actions associated with natural disasters.

Learn more

Further readings

Older people have a lifetime of experience, knowledge and skills. Recognise their capacity and include them in all stages of disaster management to create resilient communities for all.