Cover Image
close this bookRefugee Emergencies. A Community-Based Approach (UNHCR, 1996, 142 p.)
close this folderPart Two. Refugees at Risk
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentVulnerable Groups, Minorities and Isolated Refugees
View the documentRefugee Children
View the documentUnaccompanied Children
View the documentRefugee Women
View the documentSingle-Parent Households
View the documentThe Elderly
View the documentThe Disabled
View the documentMental Health

The Elderly


In the harsh circumstances surrounding life as a refugee, the elderly often do not survive for long. Yet, the presence of the elderly in the population is vital to the community, as they represent continuity with the past and act as a stabilizing force. Their care and protection is a priority...

The extent to which a particular person is affected by the aging process is influenced by physical health, family and social support, living conditions, economic situation, cultural background, psychological and emotional well-being. Consequently there is no fixed age at which it can be assumed that older refugees will need special assistance.

As with other groups with special needs, the elderly may or may not require help in meeting their basic needs. Those without family support however, are more likely to need special assistance for their day-to-day survival. This is a priority in an emergency and should be assessed on an individual basis. If assistance is needed, it must be offered in such a way that older refugees are able to maintain their dignity and a sense of self-worth.

Plan and develop services for elderly refugees along with those for the general refugee population so that these services are integrated with the broader assistance programme.

As a rule, the family or kinship group takes care of the elderly who have a well-defined role in the community. In refugee situations however, the support network is likely to be disrupted. To counter this trend, it is important that social service interventions are introduced which are community based and which will enhance the social functioning and ability of the elderly to participate in the refugee community as contributors and beneficiaries.

In an emergency, the following measures should be undertaken:

· Medical screening and assistance

· Older refugees can generally be assisted more effectively within their own communities. Use community resources to this end. Try to arrange for informal help with day-to-day tasks (e.g. collection of water and fuel, the preparation of food) through family members, relations, neighbours, religious or social groups.

· Identification of foster families where necessary. The family should be helped to look after its elderly member.

· Involvement of elderly refugees in community activities. Providing services to their community can help older refugees achieve social integration and reduce feelings of dependence.

Possibilities include:

- providing child care

- passing on traditional knowledge and teaching skills to young refugees (thereby ensuring cultural continuity for the community at a time of crisis)

- making clothing or other items for other refugees

- preparing meals for home-bound refugees.

· Look for organizations in the community, or volunteers who can provide in-home assistance which will enable older refugees to stay in their own homes

· Only when there is no other possibility should institutional care be considered.

· If such care is required, try to place refugees with other members of the same cultural and national group.

The elderly who are still physically fit should be involved in planning and implementing community programmes. Most refugee communities have great respect for their older members. This cultural norm, amongst others, must be reinforced and used as a means to keep the community together and thus retain its identity.

Check List

Have vulnerable elderly refugees been systematically identified? And by what criteria?

Have efforts been made to trace family members of isolated elderly refugees?

Do the elderly refugees benefit from the general assistance? (food, clothes, shelter, water, health care)

Do they need any additional assistance for their daily survival?

What skills, services can they provide to community?

Are there friends, neighbours, relatives, religious or social groups who can provide informal help?

Do they have difficulty with day-to-day tasks? Which ones?