Key Ways to Include Older People in Humanitarian Nutrition Responses

Picture of Hester Clark

Hester Clark

Humanitarian Advocacy Advisor, HelpAge International

Older people overlooked

The right to food is a basic human right; but around the world, millions of people go hungry every day. This gets worse during humanitarian crises, as we are seeing in the current conflict in Gaza, where famine is a very real threat.

Humanitarian agencies do what they can to deliver support, but older people are frequently ignored in nutrition responses, which do not take account of their nutritional needs—leaving them overlooked, insufficiently assessed, or inappropriately addressed.

Older people face significant health consequences from malnutrition, which can worsen their existing conditions, compromise their immune function, and prolong recovery times. During humanitarian emergencies, a combination of factors including physiological changes, pre-existing health conditions, limited mobility, and social isolation put them at greater risk. They also often face difficulties accessing what nutrition and healthcare assistance is available and being offered, due to a combination of physical, attitudinal, and institutional barriers.

'I go to sleep on an empty stomach'

In our new research, HelpAge recommends some actions that can make a difference to upholding the right to food for older people and ensuring their access to nutrition support in humanitarian emergencies.

At the global level

A United Nations (UN) convention on the rights of older people has the power to radically change the way older people’s rights are protected. It would assist governments and others to address population aging positively, eliminate age discrimination, and better protect older people’s rights—including the right to adequate food. But to date, there has been no real movement toward the drafting of such a convention that could potentially change the lives of a significant proportion of the world’s population.

Within the humanitarian sector, comprehensive UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) guidelines on the inclusion of older people in humanitarian action could shift the way they’re included in humanitarian response. Such guidelines should be developed in close consultation with older people, along with their representative organizations and other relevant humanitarian actors.

It is also important that more evidence is available for the proper identification and measurement of older people’s malnutrition in humanitarian settings. There’s currently no “gold standard” diagnostic criteria for malnutrition in older adults, despite them being among those most at risk in emergencies. The UN, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), donors, and researchers should agree on core nutrition assessment tools and criteria covering the multidimensional approach needed to properly address the complexity of malnutrition and malnutrition risk amongst older people in humanitarian crises.

Nutrition cluster response

There are a number of ways that nutrition cluster practitioners can ensure that older people are included in any nutrition response now.

1. Integrate the guidance

Guidance is available on including older people in nutrition responses and should be integrated into the work of humanitarian responders.

The Humanitarian Inclusion Standards for Older People and People with Disabilities (HIS) are designed to help address the gaps in understanding the needs, capacities, and rights of older people and people with disabilities and promote their inclusion in humanitarian action. They provide 9 key inclusion standards to guide your work with 7 additional sector-specific inclusion standards, including specific standards for nutrition.

The Sphere Standards also refer to older people across 3 standards in relation to nutrition inclusion. Each standard is supported by key actions and guidance notes to assist with the planning, implementation, and monitoring of activities.

The Global Nutrition Cluster’s Tips on nutrition interventions for the Humanitarian Response Plan contains a chapter on managing older people’s malnutrition, which focuses on assessment, prevention, and management.

2. Enhance data collection methods

Data often acts as the starting point for developing a humanitarian response, but older people are frequently overlooked in data collection. At the minimum, data that is disaggregated by sex, age, and disability should be collected, analyzed, used, and reported on to enable a better understanding of the nutrition situation of those who need support. This analysis should identify barriers to inclusion, determine the best and most appropriate responses, and generate evidence to properly understand the prevalence of malnutrition in the older population in crises settings.

Collaborating with other clusters, the UN, NGOs, and key ministries and departments to improve the collection and analysis of sex-, age-, and disability-disaggregated data (SADDD) would inform cluster plans and Humanitarian Needs Overview and Humanitarian Response Plan sections specific to nutrition.

HelpAge’s Helping Older People in Emergencies (HOPE) training has a module on SADDD that can support humanitarian responders to incorporate it into their work.

3. Include older people

Older people are diverse and have many roles in families and communities, working as caregivers, community leaders, and organizers. An inclusive response would recognize the active roles older people can play in conflict resolution, mediation, and peacebuilding efforts.

Wherever possible, strengthen the use of participatory methods by including older people in the planning, assessment, implementation, and monitoring of programs aimed at preventing and treating malnutrition in emergencies. This enables their voices to be heard, supports their involvement in decision-making, and identifies their capacities as well as the barriers they face to adequate nutrition. It’s also important to ensure that they are aware of their rights and entitlements and can provide feedback on the support provided.

The HelpAge course on Age Inclusive Humanitarian Interventions (AIHI) provides more information about the participation of older people in humanitarian responses.

4. Support locally-led approaches

Involve local communities and consult and work with local and national organizations, including older people’s organizations, to ensure age-inclusive and community-driven responses that are culturally sensitive and address the specific needs of the community. Remember that no one size fits all.

5. Promote accessibility

Make sure to identify physical, attitudinal, and institutional barriers to access—such as transportation issues, language barriers, or lack of awareness about available support—and work to mitigate them. For example, distribution mechanisms should optimize physical and financial accessibility and the safety of older people, including those with limited mobility or who are living in rural/remote areas. And, information must be communicated via multiple mediums and in a variety of accessible formats.

6. Cultivate learning and knowledge sharing

Humanitarian responders must be empowered with the appropriate skills to implement inclusive humanitarian programs and should take a moment to reflect on their own attitudes towards aging.

Cluster coordinators should help equip cluster members with the knowledge and skills necessary to effectively address the nutritional needs of older people by organizing training sessions on inclusion that explore aging and ageism in humanitarian response, as well as initiating discussion on age-related changes in nutritional requirements, identification of signs of malnutrition, and appropriate support and referrals.

Here are some training sessions that provide a good starting point:

By prioritizing inclusive approaches that uphold the rights and address the unique needs of older people, we can ensure that humanitarian nutrition responses are truly effective and leave no one behind.

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