The Hidden Demographic: How Elderly People Are Affected by Climate Change

By Zafirah Kensington, GLOBUS Correspondent

Throughout much of the current climate change discourse, we observe a lot of attention, rightly, being given to disadvantaged groups, on the basis of how certain communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. We often view these along the intersections of race, gender and class, and how lived experiences differ when looking at the impacts of climate change. Why then do we forget to include the elderly? Though recognized within the Sustainable Development Goals, there remains a lack of general mobilisation towards identifying how exactly elderly people, for the purpose of this article, 65 years and above, are affected by climate change. 

There are several reasons that exist to explain why elderly people are particularly vulnerable to climate change, with research showing that “older adults are vulnerable to being trapped in poor environments through lack of mobility, disability and frailty” as well as the issue of comorbidities contributing to how older people may face challenges when experiencing extreme weather events. The concept of comorbidities refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person.  Older people, therefore, experience a large range of such issues due to physical ailments including diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, as well as mental issues like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The presence of such ailments exacerbates their vulnerability to climate change. 

This problem is intensified in many low and middle income countries where “older people have a high exposure to food insecurity and a lack of access to resources for food production”. Food insecurity in these areas results in older people having less access to nutritional and healthy foods which leads to high levels of exposure to disease and death from contamination. For example, the impact of a drought on such communities, will only leave the elderly population more vulnerable to these effects. 

It is also important to note that within these differences, linking back to intersectionality, when age intersects with other identities, the person at risk faces more vulnerability when they are women, people of colour and disabled. This is important to understand when analysing disparities within the elderly population in not just low- and middle-income countries, but also high-income countries in the Global North. 

As it stands, in particular regard to low- and middle-income countries, stemming from assumptions concerning the elderly, they are often excluded from data collection, meaning there is not enough data currently available to appropriately assess on a wide scale how old people are affected by climate change. Therefore, wider data collection needs to be enforced in order to ensure policies put in place reflect what needs to be done to tackle the issue.  

Solutions should also aim to tackle the root structural issues rather than providing relief. For example, in the Philippines, the current pension rate is at 500 pesos per month – received by only 32 percent of senior citizens. Whilst increasing the access of elderly citizens to this social pension may at first seem a viable option as it offers financial security, a more appropriate policy, perhaps in conjunction with this, would target access to health services, information dissemination at household level, nutrition support, cash support to restart livelihoods and shelter assistance. In the event of an environmental catastrophe or disaster, the older population would then be able to evacuate more efficiently, as well as rescue personnel understanding the specific conditions that would aid them. 

Essentially, higher risk and vulnerability to climate change events is compounded with lower levels of resilience that result in older people being affected adversely by climate change. Greater precedence needs to be given to exploring the actual conditions and experiences that the older demographic face, not just in creating appropriate policies, but also gathering enough data to ensure that as we continue to face the impacts of climate change, this category is one that is effectively protected.  

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