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Bearing the brunt: impact of COVID-19 on older people

Published on 15 June 2021 04:04 PM

The impact of COVID-19 has increased the risk of abuse and neglect of older people around the world, says our partner HelpAge International in a new report released today to mark UN World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

The report, “Bearing the Brunt”, reveals that despite older people being one of the groups most at risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19, they remain chronically invisible and woefully neglected in response and recovery efforts. 

HelpAge has heard from older people living in low- and middle-income countries whose exposure to violence, abuse and neglect has increased due to isolation, restrictive measures, income losses and lack of access to services. 

Neglect, isolation, and financial abuse were identified as the top three fears of the pandemic in a survey of 3,658 older people contacted by Help Age for COVID-19 Rapid Needs Assessments (RNAs).

In India, Help Age India received more than one thousand calls to its Elder Helpline relating to abuse, violence and disputes in the second wave, an increase of 18% from the first. The helpline received almost 20,000 calls in total in the second wave, a 36% increase since the first.

Restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the virus, increasing stresses and tensions in homes, and the inability of older people to escape their abusers during lockdowns has created conditions likely to increase the risk of violence, abuse and neglect.

Older people may suffer in silence as they do not know how to report incidents or they may feel threatened by their abuser or stigmatised if they ask for help. 

COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on older people globally. Not only are older people at higher risk of serious illness and death from the virus, but government responses to the pandemic are increasing their risk of experiencing abuse and neglect.

The global response to COVID-19 has consistently neglected the specific needs and risks faced by older people.  After more than a year of this pandemic, older people in low- and middle-income countries are still experiencing discrimination and marginalisation.

COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacy and failures of systems at local, national and international level to meet the needs and rights of older people & support their resilience. The world is coming through the second wave with a compounded impact on older people.


Camilla Williamson, HelpAge's Health Advisor and report co-author

The report, compiled by HelpAge and funded by the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), gives voice to those who have not been heard, by using information gathered from case studies from Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Moldova, Pakistan and Ukraine along with interviews with older people across 14 low- to middle-income countries for COVID-19 RNAs. 

It offers insights into older people’s experiences and reveals barriers and concerns. 

The report shows that older people are not getting the healthcare treatments they desperately need.The COVID-19 response has disrupted services for non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes, communicable diseases such as malaria, and much-needed services for mental health.

Combined with a loss of income, many older people are unable to get the medicines they need.  

Read the report (PDF, 3 MB)

It explains that a huge barrier to effective prevention, response and recovery is the lack of data available on older people globally; they continue to be excluded from data sets and surveys. Existing surveys on violence against women primarily focus on women of reproductive age (15-49). This keeps older people out of sight and under-represented in global and national policy and legal frameworks, which can influence the level of funding available for older people.

COVID-19 funding has also been diverted away from gender-based violence support services which are often the sole providers of direct support to women, including older women, facing violence.

Older people are silently suffering. There have been many unaddressed healthcare issues, people with cancer, diabetes, are not being cared for as the country is so busy with the COVID-19 response.

They are scared to go for basic testing if they get symptoms, which may or may not be COVID-19 as they feel a positive test is a death sentence. It is an unimaginable reality.

Imtiaz Ahmed, Mission Head at HelpAge India

Health and psychosocial services have shifted to telephone or online support, which means older people with no access to the internet or telephone, or those with no technological skills are excluded.

The neglect of access to health services will have dire consequences for the lives of all affected.Many older people already live in precarious situations around the world, especially those who have already experienced a lifetime of poverty, exclusion and inequality.

Further findings of the report reveal responses to the pandemic have made their lives even harder; jobs and livelihoods have been lost and rights denied.

With an increasingly ageing population and devastating cuts to foreign aid, Age International with its partner HelpAge International is urgently calling on the international community to address the wider impact of the pandemic on older people, prepare for future challenges and ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines prioritises those at highest risk.

The international community must learn from last year. The report provides urgent recommendations for humanitarian actors, donors, and agencies. These include calling for UN and government data systems to be improved, with support from international partners to collect, analyse and use data on violence, abuse and neglect of older people to inform prevention and response, and for States to adopt a UN convention on the rights of older people .

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Last updated: Jun 15 2021

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