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When older people flee their homes from danger, ageism is a barrier to accessing help

22 Oct 2018

Uganda Reach the Aged Association staff member speaks to blind South Sudanese refugee Atoo in a settlement in Uganda (c) Ben Small/HelpAge International

"We are not given any respect, support and space in decision-making processes. In a recent seed distribution by aid agencies, I was not registered as they said I have no energy to farm" - Philip from South Sudan

Philip has been displaced by conflict three times, fleeing to Uganda. In both Uganda and in his home community, he speaks of being regularly discriminated against because of his age and disability. He now campaigns to change these attitudes.

Philip's experience is not uncommon. Nyatuong, who lives in an internal displacement camp in South Sudan, said: "Our participation in decision-making processes here in the camp is minimal. We feel we are being discriminated against because of our age."

Samira, who has lived in Gaza since the 1970s, says her friends do not speak about the age discrimination they experience "probably because they feel shame about it".

Missing millions: how older people with disabilities are excluded from humanitarian response found that in contexts of displacement and emergencies, the attitudes of healthcare staff and humanitarian actors were a barrier to older people with disabilities accessing healthcare and assistance. Older people have been turned away and told they cannot be helped because of their age, or are forced to stand in long queues in extreme temperatures to wait for aid.

When older people are displaced and lose control of community resources and assets, their role and respect within the community diminishes, according to a separate study by the Overseas Development Institute, HelpAge International and Age International. It found that older people were seen to be less important and powerful without control of these assets, and so attitudes towards them changed.

This change was exacerbated by the way aid agencies operate in contexts of displacement. They often empower groups of younger people as the focus of new community governance structures set up as part of humanitarian responses. This approach excludes older people from accessing information and community-level safety nets.

It is not surprising that these changes in community status, and consequently the change in attitudes of older people's families and communities towards them, have a negative impact on older people's mental health. Displacement, combined with a lack of autonomy and respect, makes older people feel depressed, marginalised and isolated.

This issue is not only one of mental health, but more broadly one of human rights and of structural ageism, which leads to marginalisation, poverty, and the abuse and neglect of older people.

When older people migrate - whether by choice or, as is often the case, because of conflict and disasters - host communities, governments and humanitarian agencies often overlook them. These ageist attitudes, whether recognised as such or not, deny older people their rights to humanitarian assistance and protection. Rights to essential services, such as accessing food, clean water and sanitation and healthcare, are not upheld.

It also means older people are rarely asked for their opinion or input into humanitarian agencies' response plans and activities, or given the opportunity to participate in their communities.

Very early findings from a rapid needs assessment carried out by HelpAge global network member COSE after Typhoon Mangkhut hit the Philippines found that 93% of older people had not been consulted by any humanitarian agency about the relief services provided to them.

Ageism can leave older people excluded from global humanitarian policies - ending this is essential in challenging prejudice and changing the way people think, feel and act towards older people.

The inclusion of older people in the Global Compact on Refugees, for example, is a key step to ensuring older people are considered in displacement. But changes are still needed in the knowledge, understanding and attitudes of a wide range of actors if the situation for older people in these contexts is to improve.

Human rights have no age limits. We are all equal in dignity and rights. This includes older people who have been forced to flee their homes. Grigoriy, a campaigner in conflict-affected Ukraine calls for "a perfect world where there is respect for each other regardless of age". We should follow the lead of older human rights campaigners like him who have continued their work to change attitudes and behaviour towards older people for the better, even when displaced and living in extremely challenging circumstances.

This blog has been co-posted with the Ageing Equal campaign.

Your comments

Otim John Bosco

This is absolute truth on the ground and here in Uganda and especially where i come from the eastern and north eastern part of Uganda where most people were displaced as a result of cattle rustling and the civil wards latent suffering is evidenced BUT with a lot of silence and no body seems taking action. A number of old people are suffering from mulnutrition, disease and discrimination yet no specific efforts are targeted to address this problem. this challenge is highly evidenced in urban areas where most of these old people fled and have lived for decades. We can share more info. on this whenever any interested stakeholder or partner needs more clarifications.

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Author profile


Madeleine McGivern
Country: UK
Job title: Humanitarian Policy Advisor, HelpAge Internat

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International or its donors.