“All of us are aging,” Carole Ageng’o, Africa regional representative and global initiatives lead at HelpAge International, reminded attendees at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy’s (CDP’s) recent webinar: Older Adults and Disasters: Overcoming Stereotypes and Strengthening Inclusion. Yet, this simple fact of life doesn’t prevent ageism, the prevalent discrimination against older adults. Disasters, which amplify inequity and discrimination, highlight the dangers of ageism. 

CDP’s webinar, moderated by Austin Snowbarger, CDP manager of learning and partnerships, brought together Ageng’o, Nnenia Campbell, Ph.D., deputy director, Bill Anderson Fund, and research associate, Natural Hazards Center, University of Colorado Boulder; and Jeffrey Lambert, chief operating officer, Ventura County Community Foundation. The panelists shared insights for funders who want to overcome ageism and support older adults’ inclusion in disaster planning and response. 

Why Focus on Older Adults

Older adults are a large and growing portion of the global population. Snowbarger noted that “an older person is defined by the United Nations as a person who is over 60 years of age. The World Health Organization says, between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world's population over 60 will nearly double.” This reality makes prioritizing older adults in disaster contexts increasingly important. 

Various factors influence older adults' social vulnerability. Ageng’o said “the consequences of normalized exclusion and lack of attention to structural fitness that place older people to the periphery in the development discourse play out very, very starkly in the humanitarian crises.”

This point was reiterated by each panelist throughout the webinar. Campbell shared a slide summarizing the factors that contribute to poor outcomes for older adults in disaster contexts:

Campell said “those vulnerabilities are not innate.” Rather, these vulnerabilities are created by systems that are failing older adults.

The Experiences of Older Adults Are Assets

Ageism makes older adults vulnerable, but their long life experiences make them valuable. Older adults have survived and overcome challenges in the past. They have lived experience and knowledge that can be great assets when it comes to building effective disaster plans.

“Our aging population - they're not just victims,” Lambert said. “They're also resources in the recovery process.”

Campbell highlighted that “retirees contribute a lot of volunteer labor, and often provide a lot of important disaster-related support.” Volunteers are a key part of disaster recovery. Older adults with the means to volunteer can be a massive asset for communities struggling to recover while younger people return to education and work responsibilities. 

Incorporating Older Adults into Disaster Planning and Response

Start before the crisis. Bringing people in ahead of time allows their contributions to shape response plans that address their needs. Ageng’o said that involvement in working groups that exist pre-crisis make it “very easy to lend our voice and bring our expertise in the post-crisis, or even during the crisis.” 

Build relationships. Social isolation is a challenge for the aging population and adds another layer of complexity during disasters. Lambert said donors can help address this by “making sure that there's opportunities for [older adults] to have a network and support around them.”

Meet people where they are. Considering the communication preferences of older adults can be the difference between inclusion and exclusion. 

“Maybe this population doesn't communicate the same way [as others],” said Lambert. “So a text campaign to warn people of a disaster might not be as functional for them.”

Strengthen service providers. Lambert emphasized the importance of investing in nonprofits before crisis strikes to build resilience and improve their ability to provide essential services during a crisis.

Recognize that older adults are not a homogenous group. Campbell pointed out that “age is not the only characteristic that defines [older adults], and those factors that affect social privilege and marginalization then also shape their disaster outcomes.” 

Resources for Funders

Watch the full webinar: Older Adults and Disasters: Overcoming Stereotypes and Strengthening Inclusion at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.