Ageing and Life Course

Emergencies and older people

Emergency situations are increasing worldwide and older people remain one of the most seriously affected groups. Yet, the needs and contributions of older people are generally overlooked by humanitarian organizations in terms of policy and practice.

There are specific health and social factors that can, separately or in combination, affect older persons and impact on them during an emergency situation. These include:

  • physical heath
  • oral health and dentition
  • mental health
  • functional status and disability
  • lifestyle habits
  • nutrition
  • family and social relations
  • economic situation, and
  • gender considerations.

Awareness of the needs and contributions of older persons

Consideration of these issues can help ensure that older people at risk can be identified before, during and following an emergency situation. For example, impairments that in normal circumstances do not interfere with daily functioning, can quickly become handicaps that overwhelm the person's capacity to cope in an emergency situation. An older person with arthritic knees, diminished vision and poor hearing can rapidly become incapable of getting food or receiving messages to flee from danger.

For WHO, older people are not simply a vulnerable population group. Rather, they are, in general, very resilient and their knowledge of their community, experience with past emergencies as well as positions of respect within families and communities, makes them valuable resources that should be drawn upon.

Awareness of the needs and contributions of older persons among those developing policies and guidelines and providing care can contribute to more effective interventions, including equitable access to essential health and social services to older people during all phases of an emergency.

WHO activities

WHO has been actively engaged in building awareness about the needs and the positive contributions of older people. Several publications on older people in emergencies have been developed including the report, "Older persons in emergencies: An active ageing perspective" was based on case studies undertaken in 2006-2007 by WHO, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Help the Aged, UK.