Older Persons Face Special Challenges in Community
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
In Kakuma Refugee Camp, elderly persons are increasingly vulnerable to daily challenges of survival when community support structures fail them.
Kakuma Refugee Camp hosts thousands of elderly refugees who face particular challenges to their economic, social, and psychological well-being. While elderly people are an especially vulnerable group in refugee camps, there is little support for them in Kakuma.
The challenges facing older persons in the refugee camp context are magnified in comparison to a typical community context, where social support structures normally provide a safety net for elders. The refugee camp lacks the cohesive community ties and resources that would enable such a network to exist.
Here in the camp, elderly persons are largely left to face the problems of old age alone. Individual refugees are often so preoccupied with their own life struggles that they have little energy to devote to others. This failed safety net heightens the vulnerability of elderly persons in the camp.
According to the World Health Organization, an elderly person is classified as a person over the age of 60 years. However, the designation differs from country to country depending on culture, customs, and religion.
No organized assistance for the elderly
Due to the particular vulnerabilities of older persons in a refugee camp, UNHCR and other implementing agencies have a responsibility to address the specific needs of older people. But in reality, there are few examples of organized assistance to older persons in Kakuma Camp.
One old woman, a Somali Bajun of 71 years, expresses her plight in the camp. “Life is very difficult here in the camp, especially to an old person like me.”
But she is grateful to live with her children here in the camp, and she says she is blessed to see the children to her grandchildren. “My children are taking care of me,” she says.
When asked about services from UNHCR, she explains that “there is no special service I get from UNHCR different from other refugees.” Looking to her children, she asks, “If these children of mine were not with me, what would be my fate? I really feel very bad that there is no time UNHCR thought of us old persons and visited us.”
A vital role in communities
Traditionally, older people are the owners and leaders of the community, and elders still play a significant role in Kakuma camp communities.
Older persons are perceived to bear responsibility towards younger generations. Youth seek advice and are guided in the culture and customs of their society by elders. Elders have well-developed knowledge and experiences which can be passed from generation to generation.
For this reason, elders can successfully contribute to conflict resolution, peace promotion, and counseling among members of their community.
But these unique strengths are also accompanied by vulnerability. As they grow older, persons also become weaker. If attention and support from families and community members erodes, their self-confidence and social interactions may decrease. At this point, older persons can become isolated and depressed.
“When you become older and at the same time may be sick, you have short hand people around you disappear,” said a 58-year old man from the Ethiopian Community who is ill. He has remained in Kakuma Camp for more than 16 years.
“Reduced attention from friends is more pain than that of that sickness,” he says as he describes his loneliness.
Challenges to daily life and well-being
Daily survival in Kakuma Camp is no simple task. Mud-brick shelters must be maintained and wooden support poles protected from termites. Individuals must regularly collect rations, water, and firewood, attempt to get fresh fruits and vegetables, and prepare cooked meals—among many other tasks. All these daily routines become a major challenge for older persons who cannot do these tasks on their own.
Refugees observe that aid given by UNHCR through various NGOs is insufficient to serve the most elderly and vulnerable members of their communities.
Many elders report that they would appreciate a chance to be more independent. But such opportunities for self-reliance are rare. Elderly persons cannot compete with their younger counterparts for job opportunities, and they often cannot meet the physical demands of job duties and movements around the camp required for many NGO jobs.
Negash Mengistu, the director of a community-based organization called Hope for the Vulnerable Voluntary Services (HVVS), sees many cases of elderly persons facing challenges in the camp. He tries to assist these individuals when they are unable to solve their own problems.
In the camp, he says, elderly persons “don’t have a supportive network. They are unable to work, but they have potential. They were not given attention and encouraged to use their potential. Actually, many are able to work in some capacity, like peace and conflict resolution in their community.”
But physical and material needs do not stand alone—elderly persons also seek companionship and interpersonal support for their psychological well-being. Many of Kakuma’s older residents have stayed more than 15 years in the refugee camp. Their past problems of persecution and flight converge with their plight in the refugee camp to lead some elders to develop psychological trauma and distress.
Some older persons stay alone in the camp after fleeing their home country and leaving families behind. They no longer have contact with their families, but day and night they think about their loved ones. These sad ruminations form a major cause of their psychological problems. Neglected by members of the community, elderly persons may develop loneliness and depression.
But Mr. Abebe Feyissa, a trained psychologist from Ethiopia who now serves as a counselor with JRS (Jesuit Refugee Services), says that older people are not disproportionately affected by psychological distress. He conducted two research investigations on the psychological health of the refugee population, and found that young men have more psychological problems than older ones. This may be due to the fact that young men are at the prime of their productive lives, but their ambitions for the future are lost in the hopelessness of the camp. Women generally cope better than men, he noted.
Strengthen community support networks
Community support networks are a natural way of addressing elderly persons’ needs. In the refugee camp context, there is urgent need to strengthen the capacity of families in the community so that older people may benefit from sustained assistance from their neighbours.
Mr. Mengistu of HVVS believes elderly persons form an integral part of the refugee community and should be recognized as such by UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies. “In this case, first UNHCR has to have a clear picture of all the older persons in the camp,” he says. Then elderly persons should be included in a multi-sectoral planning process in order to “design a proper plan of solution for their problems.”