When disasters strike: The plight of the elders

Awang Chik sits in the living room of her new house. Her kind regard and gentle nature made her an easy person to speak to, and I was curious to hear her story.

When I first arrived at the foot of Awang Chik’s house in the village of Dusun Nyiur, Kelantan, I found her sitting and serving tea under the vast space/unofficial living room of her home. The robust 80-year-old was surrounded by people I presumed was her family. She had an easy grace about her, her movements fluid as she laughed, smiled, or listened to her audience. She was the very image of a Malay household matriarch, one I was quite familiar with, growing up in a matriarchal household myself.

But these people weren’t her family. Well, not in the literal sense of the word. They certainly treated her as such, and it was easy to see why. Right away you could feel her magnetic charm. She entertained her guests with the ease of a well-seasoned host, and after offering me a drink, guided me up the stairs of her house.

The house was taller in build than its predecessor, so Granny Awang told me. A 600 + square foot wooden and brick structure with three bedrooms and a nice open kitchen. Beautiful as it was, the house’s emptiness seemed to multiply its size, its void made apparent by the truth that when the crowd below us and I leave, Granny Awang would be here alone, save for the company of her cats.

When I asked what had happened to her previous house, she said, “Oh, you can probably see what’s left of it outside, somewhere. The flood took it all.”

The flood in question was the December 2014 disaster which struck East Coast Malaysia, affecting some 230,000 people and leaving thousands homeless. It was the worst flooding the country  had seen in decades. An unprecedented disaster, and one that raised the question about the fate of lone, senior citizens like the gentle lady who was taking me on a tour around her house.

Granny Awang escaped, barely, with just the clothes on her back, her purse and her telekung. “The neighbours alerted the rescuers about my being here, since I had no family members. When I came home, well, there was no house to even call it home. I was alone. I had no one to help me. The flood had taken everything away.”

It’s hard not to be objective when you find yourself in someone else’s living room and hearing their story. As I sidestepped several of her lounging cats, I found myself mulling the thought of what would happen if it had been my grandmother in her place. Or my mother. If the villagers hadn’t realised she was home, alone, the rescue boats might not have arrived in time to save her.

Hers isn’t an isolated case. During my short time working in the humanitarian field, I’ve seen or read many similar stories from various parts of the world. Senior citizens are especially vulnerable during disasters, let alone when they’re on their own. During the chaos of an evacuation, or when flash floods are sweeping through buildings and structures, they are left at the mercy of their neighbours and are sometimes forced to fend for themselves. This is definitely a problem, and one that will grow if left untreated.

To put things into perspective, an article from Cornell University cited a quote from one of their professors –

“Over half of the people who died in Hurricane Katrina were age 65 and older. The majority of elderly people who died during Hurricane Katrina were trapped in their homes, and subsequently drowned or had heart attacks as their pre-existing health conditions were exacerbated. A similar pattern seems to have occurred in Hurricane Sandy”.

Back home in Dusun Nyiur, another elderly citizen, Esah binti Husain, 75, echoed Grandma Awang’s fears. To make matters worse, Esah was bedridden when I visited her, having fractured her hip from a fall in the bathroom.

She was entirely dependent on her son, Osman, who said that the nearest hospital is 5 kilometres away, and without a transport of their own, even that trip would be difficult.

“We can only do so much,” Osman told me when I interviewed him for another article at the time. “It’s heart breaking to see her like this. She can’t walk and I worry about what would happen to her if another disaster hits.”

Osman, next to his mother, who was at the time healing from a broken hip. He was living with her to ensure all her needs are taken care of, but feared that other disasters would strike as the climate continues to change.

Going back to the question – What can we do to ensure the safety of our elders, comes back to how the government and local relief organisations structure their welfare and disaster preparedness programmes. While many countries have implemented programmes to help senior citizens cope with disasters and prepare for them, it begs the question – is this enough?

As reported in an article by The Sun Daily newspaper, senior citizens aged 60 and above made up 2.8 million or 9% of Malaysia’s population of 31 million in 2016. Projections by Malaysia’s National Statistics Department indicate that the country is expected to reach ageing nation status by 2035, when senior citizens make up 15% or 5.6 million of its population. 

Lacking a direct, surefire answer, one solution popped up repeatedly – community action. During my stay in the flood-affected areas, it came as both a surprise and delight to realise that the tight-knit communities were doing what they’ve always done best; looking out for each other.

After all, the first people on the scene of any disaster is always the locals – This is a given. Until we come up with a firm plan on ensuring that the safety of our senior citizens during disasters, villagers and community members should come together to ensure the safety of all.

And perhaps I need not worry so much – It seems that some senior citizens are already masters of disaster.

What are your thoughts on this? What can we do to help prepare our elders?

Note: This article is my personal opinion and does not reflect my employer.



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