|Thursday, 24 February 2005|
Impact on the elderly of the tsunami disaster
by Nimal Ranatunga
The recent shattering disaster triggered by the tsunami tidal giant killer waves had a degenerating, negative effect on the life of the older vulnerable persons.
It is extremely difficult to ascertain the accurate number of older persons demised and victimized in this catastrophe. Correct statistics pertaining to this segment of the population are not available in the state institutions or any other organizations.
But visiting the diverse welfare centres established in the devastated areas for displaced persons, it is highly conspicuous that a good number of our older people are afflicted with social, economic and psychological traumas resulting in seclusion, marginalization, mental stress and eternal misery.
In certain welfare centres they are not considered the most vulnerable segment of the population and they are being ignored and discriminated against by others. Hence it is observed that these desperate and destitute elders are very often not accessible to the various relief emergency items at the time of distribution for the welfare centres.
In the midst of other persons with strength and ability they do not possess the potentiality to overcome the constraints emerging from invisibility, isolation, exclusion powerlessness, separation and loss of status.
HelpAge Sri Lanka, a non-governmental organization working for and with the elderly, had devised an appropriate stratagem to prioritise the needs of the elders by embarking on a needs assessment on a scientific footing.
These requirements were delivered to them on a proper basis without subjecting them to needless torment and suffering. This is effected on a feasible and a concerted plan formulated by Tilak de Zoysa, Chairman - HelpAge Sri Lanka, Members of the Council of HelpAge Sri Lanka and N.W.E. Wijewantha, Executive Director of HelpAge Sri Lanka.
After meeting with some of the older persons, males and females, an ardent attempt was made to address their problems and to explore their capacities by laying emphasis on their frame of mind. This was effected mainly to,
I. To bring relief and ease to the grief stricken senior citizens.
II. To bring solace and calm the minds to tsunami elderly victims.
III. To soothe their minds and to pave the way for resilience and rejuvenation.
Hence they could be categorized into a few groups by gathering substantial information on a cross section of the community of older people.
1. Some old people live in isolation suffering immensely from this catastrophe. They have lost everything in life including those near and dear to them. They are devoid of anybody to support them.
They will be able to take shelter in the welfare centres only for a brief period. Owing to these circumstances the only abode available to them to take refuge for the rest of their life is the Elders' Home. It is extremely difficult to rekindle new hope and expectation in them as all their hopes have been shattered.
II. This tsunami disaster had forced upon few elders an additional burdensome, onerous and acute responsibility of supporting their grand children whose both parents have lost their lives. The grand-father and grand-mother are the sole saviours of these vulnerable, innocent children who are orphaned.
These elders are of opinion that it is impossible for them to face these grim challenges. This is an increasingly fragile situation for older people. They feel highly disheartened as they are incapable of supplementing the loss of traditional sources of support for the survival of these children. But these isolated older persons are forced to live with young dependants for the rest of their lives.
III. Some of these elderly males and females are in a pensive mood contemplating their future livelihood as they are completely deprived of a house to live in. Hence their only ambition is to acquire a suitable house for their living.
Though shelter is one of their priorities they are so accustomed to their traditional pattern and model of housing they do not desire to deviate from it even though a better housing system is provided. They are highly anxious to lead the same pattern of life they were familiar with prior to this emergency situation. They feel that a new environment would cause the destruction of their traditional, social structure which had been hereditary.
IV. Most of these elders suffer from the vagaries of body and mind. Some living in the welfare centres complain of acute joint and muscle pain. This is a result of sleeping on the ground. They should be provided with mattresses or should permit them to sleep on a raised sleeping area. It's well and good if physiotherapy could be administered to them to reduce joint and muscle pain.
V. Some elders who are prone to various ailments are apt to suffer without proper medication to which they are used to. Their chronic disorders without regular treatment tend to become acute. Some food given to them at the welfare centres are unsuitable for older people as such food do not agree with their digestive systems. Hence they are vulnerable to rapid debilitation caused by diarrhoea.
VI. About 90% of the elders are subjected to mental stress and immense frustration. They need proper post-trauma counselling and psychological assistance. Courage and firm determination should be instilled and inculcated in them.
The five cardinal principles embodied in the charter of 1991 by the United Nation's namely
Emphasize the significant role an elder could play in an ageing world. These principles in practice would certainly evolve a precious elder who will regain the lost social status, recognition, power and courage.
Though the evil consequences of this natural disaster had an adverse and negative impact on the life of the elderly, they could be rehabilitated to contribute an effective and constructive share for community development.
(The writer is a former Director of Education. He is at present the Director of the Education Division of HelpAge, Sri Lanka.)
Produced by Lake House