Roles Reimagined: Older People’s Struggles Amidst Conflict and Earthquake Aftermath in Northwest Syria

A new report looks at the changing roles of older people in northwest Syria after 13 years of conflict and the devastation caused by the 2023 earthquake.

  • Deteriorating economic conditions have left many older people struggling to find dignified work, forcing them to sell their assets to meet their basic needs.
  • 59% of older people in northwest Syria perceive a decrease in respect and appreciation within their communities.
  • Exclusion from the workforce leaves older people marginalized, diminishing their mental health and fostering a sense of futility.
  • Older people with disabilities struggle to earn respect or recognition.

Challenges and self-reliance of older people in northwest Syria

The report, published by HelpAge International and Action for Humanity, explores how harsh life has become for older people in northwest Syria after 13 years of conflict and the February 2023 earthquake. The report sheds light on how a rapidly shifting socio-economic landscape and transformation in societal norms have fundamentally changed the dynamics of care for older people in the region.

Nearly 417,000 older people are classified as the most ‘at-risk’ group in northwest Syria, especially those living in poverty and providing care to other household members. Deprived of essential services as a result of the upheaval faced in the region, they are becoming increasingly marginalized and struggle to cope with insufficient social protection infrastructure.

Shifts in norms around caregiving and support for older people

Since the beginning of the conflict, older people in northwest Syria have experienced a significant shift in societal norms, characterized by a transition from traditional family care for older people to a reliance on self-care or assistance in retirement homes. This change has led to distress, especially as it sometimes coincides with younger family members superseding leadership roles within the family structure.

"In the past, older people would reach retirement age and the family would take care of them. However, currently, they should rely on self-care and, in some cases, this has led to increased responsibility, placing the burden directly on them."

"I care for my grandchildren, and they have no provider other than me. I try hard to take care of them, which causes me significant psychological pressure and occasional inability to meet all their needs."

Economic challenges and exclusion

Exclusion from economic opportunities is another challenge faced by older people in northwest Syria, as they lack sufficient employment opportunities and perceive themselves as burdens on their families.

Financial hardships, coupled with the absence of social protection, push older people towards adopting negative coping mechanisms, such as selling their assets or engaging in unseemly work. 

This recurring pattern has created a space where older women in particular often experience a diminishing level of respect.

"Older people face a combination of challenges that affect their roles. These challenges include repeated displacement, no one to care for them, inability to meet their basic needs, and lack of finances for medical expenses. Older people feel they are a burden on society."

Challenges with humanitarian assistance

The report highlights the concerns expressed by older people on the planning and delivery of humanitarian assistance. They have emphasized the need to prioritize initiatives that promote sustainable self-reliance, underscoring the limited progress made by the humanitarian response in northwest Syria, which has primarily concentrated on meeting immediate humanitarian needs.

“For 13 years, people–including older people–in northwest Syria have relied on “aid.” Humanitarian agencies need to adapt the system to allow us to be self-reliant and support ourselves. People in northwest Syria have the right to live with dignity.”

– Civil society leader in northwest Syria

The report by HelpAge and Action for Humanity makes the following recommendations to ensure the inclusion of older people in the planning and delivery of humanitarian assistance, as well as in inclusive conflict resolution, and peacebuilding efforts:

  • Cooperation with community-based committees, ensuring their active involvement as equal partners in the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of humanitarian response initiatives.
  • Supporting the engagement, participation, and empowerment of older people, engaging them in decision-making, community initiatives, and crisis responses, and incorporating their perspectives and experiences in plans, programs, and monitoring.
  • Leveraging older people’s experience and leadership for more effective projects, fostering self-ownership.
  • Implementing comprehensive social protection programs specifically designed for older people, addressing their economic, health, and social needs.
  • Promoting community-based care services and support, such as assisted living arrangements and home-based care services.
  • Establishing financial assistance programs targeting older people, considering their economic challenges.
  • Fostering existing community-based support networks to support older caregivers in fulfilling their responsibilities.
  • Working with older communities to create and facilitate useful vocational training programs to promote economic self-sufficiency.
  • Ensuring that older people have a voice in formal decision-making structures, including international conferences, forums, panels, and across all donor mechanisms, recognizing their role in conflict resolution and mediation.
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