Don't forget the elderly

Elderly people need more attention in the response to January's earthquake in Haiti and more appreciation of the role they can play in the relief effort, say aid workers.

Some 800,000 Haitians, or about 7 percent of the population, are over 60, says Help Age International and more than 200,000 elderly have been affected by the earthquake.

"It's a population that has its own specific needs and can be very vulnerable - in some ways just as vulnerable as the under-five or infant population," Cynthia Powell of Help Age International told IRIN in the capital Port-au-Prince.

"At the same time they are adults who have had tremendously rich lives and have a lot of experience, a lot of potential to give back to society in some way."

A number of private and public nursing homes exist in the capital, Help Age says. But they are either damaged or do not have the capacity to absorb older people discharged from hospitals or needing special care after the earthquake.

As part of its efforts Help Age is working with the NGO Samaritan's Purse on a food-for-training project in which women would be trained in elderly care.

Depressed, disoriented

In camps for displaced families IRIN saw elderly people in various conditions - from a 90-year-old woman selling laundry detergent and hand soap to a 66-year-old man who since the quake has been disoriented and refuses to eat.

"I cannot get him to eat," his daughter Yolande Casimir told IRIN, as he lay on the floor of their tent, appearing to go in and out of sleep. "He wets and soils himself. He's depressed. He talks to himself. When he gets up to walk he just falls down." She said he was diabetic and had high blood pressure, but he was fine before the earthquake.

"He is just so stressed. All he's thinking about is the house and everything else that he lost. Could you tell me what I could do to help him a little bit so he won't lose his head completely?"

Photo: Nancy Palus/IRIN
This displaced woman has been unable to get post-operative care for her eyes. Her spectacles were among many belongings lost in the quake

Several elderly people IRIN spoke to in camps for displaced families said they had suffered chest pains and head- and stomach-aches since the quake. Most said they had high blood pressure and were no longer taking their required medicines.

"With diabetes and hypertension it's a double whammy," Help Age's Powell told IRIN. "After the quake there may have been an interruption in access to prescription medicines for chronic conditions like that, and both of those conditions are exacerbated by stress."

Rita Baptiste, 65, said she had an eye operation just before the earthquake and now her eyes were irritated and she could not see well. The hospital where she would have had a follow-up was destroyed, as were her glasses.

For some elderly people in the camps - many of whom are alone, their children in the provinces or abroad - getting much-needed assistance is a challenge. Philomène Casimir, 70, told IRIN that one morning she received a card for a food distribution, but when she went to collect the food in the afternoon she was jostled by the crowds and left empty-handed. She said she dared not try again.

Special needs

Help Age and other NGOs plan to set up dedicated zones in new IDP camps to be formed in the coming months to address such issues.

"We are advocating for a special needs area in those camps - not just for elderly but for amputees, people who are discharged from hospitals and handicapped," Michael Andreini of Help Age told IRIN. "So that health facilities are more accessible and so that [these groups'] security and protection is taken into consideration."

A member of the committee running one camp, who gave his name only as Harold, said the breakdown of communities since the disaster meant people who might previously have paid a visit to an elderly person to lend a hand in the house or give a bit of food or money, no longer did so.

Not all elderly people affected by the earthquake were in dire need, aid workers and camp residents pointed out. Many are active and simply need to be supported with healthcare, food and shelter so as not to slide into vulnerability. They are also great resources, Andreini said.

"These are people who have gone through a number of different regimes, who have [been part of] the history of Haiti, who understand what it has gone through and what its potential is," he said. "Some of the best people to help plan how to rebuild this country are people who have been here for a long time."