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Older persons among most vulnerable to environmental changes

But UNFPA says the elderly often left out of disaster planning

BY ARLENE MARTIN-WILKINS Associate editor — news martina@jamaicaobserver.com

Thursday, November 01, 2012    

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LAST Friday’s gripping image on the front page of the Jamaica Observer of 79-year-old Hazel McLean, looking on in despair as she stands in front of what was left of her house by Hurricane Sandy, puts in context the added challenges posed by natural disasters on the island’s older people — one of society’s most vulnerable groups.

The category one Hurricane Sandy flattened most of McLean’s wooden structure only 30 minutes after she vacated the building, frightened by the storm’s howling winds as it ripped through St Thomas, one of the parishes hardest hit.

It was particularly painful for McLean, since the house withstood the might of Hurricane Gilbert, which devastated much of Jamaica as a category three storm some 24 years ago.

“This house pass through Gilbert and nutten no happen,” her daughter Iris McLean told the Observer last Thursday.

But a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report says despite being among the most vulnerable groups to natural disasters and environmental change, older people like McLean are generally excluded from debates on climate change and disaster risk reduction.

“Contrary to the common perception that, because the climate is changing, older people’s knowledge is now obsolete, older people’s experience of disasters and their knowledge of coping mechanisms can be critical to the development of local disaster risk reduction and adaptation plans,” the UNFPA says in its recently released report titled Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and a Challenge.

“Combining local knowledge with broader scientific knowledge is key to dealing with adaptation to climate change. It is also necessary to have a better understanding of the impact of climate change and economic migration on older farmers and on older person’s food security,” added the report, which was done in collaboration with HelpAge International.

The UN defines older people as those 60 years and over. The group currently makes up approximately 11 per cent of Jamaica’s 2.7-million population. But the figure and the challenges are expected to grow in coming years, as Jamaica — like many other countries — is seeing an ageing population, largely due to a dramatic decline in birth rates.

It is estimated that the number of older people worldwide will climb to one billion within the next 10 years and two billion by 2050. Currently, there are 810 million older people across the globe.

According to the UNFPA, ageing, climate change and the increasing risk of natural disasters are among the “biggest issues facing humanity this century.

“The situation will only grow more precarious with climate change, population ageing, migration, continued environmental degradation, and unsustainable resource use,” the report states. “Most of the world’s older people are in developing countries where vulnerability to changes in climate and natural disasters is at its highest”.

“Older people also face lifethreatening health risks during increasingly common heat waves, and are at greater risk of malaria and waterborne diseases.”

Their vulnerability, the UNFPA noted, has been linked to age-related issues “such as chronic diseases, reduced mobility and strength, and impaired sight and hearing”.

“High levels of migration leave them even more vulnerable, as they are often left behind to care for grandchildren in environmentally risky conditions,” it said.

In underscoring the need for their inclusion in disaster planning, the report noted that people 60 years and over have much greater attachment to places and therefore a deeper understanding of the need to manage their environment.

“They are more likely to recognise the longer-term relationship between people and their livelihoods, wellbeing and the environment,” the UNFPA said.

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