Older people who are victims of violent conflicts in many parts of the world face serious problems. They cannot escape due to a lack of mobility or physical strength and become targets of violence and reprisals. As families and communities disintegrate, older persons may be left isolated, destitute and without support systems. They are often less able to adapt to a difficult new environment and face obstacles to securing relief, social services and employment. When the conflict ends, their experience and potential for peace-building and social reconstruction may be ignored.

The ongoing crises in Russia and Ukraine will affect the elderly population irreversibly. The plight of the elderly has long been neglected during wars. Ukraine has the world’s highest proportion of elderly affected by war. Approximately 30% of people (more than one million) affected by the conflict since 2014 are older people, many of whom have been driven from their homes by the violence along the contact line that divides Government and non-government-controlled areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The ongoing conflict has a staggering human toll on the elderly. 3.4 million people depend on humanitarian assistance, and one-third of those people are over 60 years old.

The elderly are often unable to flee from the conflict zone and are left alone without family or their wider community. They are isolated, without loved ones and cut off from support, including access to medicine and food. They are particularly exposed when violence breaks out, as they may not be able to shelter from danger.

“I live on the line of contact, where they shoot almost every day. The shelling is what worries me the most. What if they hit the house, and blast the windows, roof, and doors out? Who will help me?
If the war starts and they shoot hard, I will go down to the basement. There are safe places in the village, but first, you need to get there, and it may not be safe.”

Ekaterina Vyazovaya, 70, Ukraine

“I'm afraid that it will be like in the war [World War 2]. I was five years old when the war started and remember how military vehicles were driving down the street. There was nothing to eat. We had to eat grass. “If the war breaks out, I'll stay at home. There is a cellar in my yard, but I won't be able to reach it. I hope my neighbours don't leave me, God bless them. People suffer, they live in fear, and everyone is worried and afraid.”

Lydia Manuylova, 86, Ukraine

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The particular risks associated with the elderly during war are

  • Difficulties escaping or avoiding fighting, which will result in them being separated from their families and lead to social exclusion and isolation. The vast majority (96%) of older people surveyed experienced conflict-related mental health issues.
  • Risk of severe income shortages as nearly every older person affected (99%) relied on a pension as their main source of income, which can be disrupted if they cannot cannot access payment points.
  • A lack of access to and difficulty affording healthcare. 97% of people surveyed had at least one chronic disease, and not being able to access healthcare represents a major issue.
  • Poor living conditions and a lack of support for those with disabilities. Over half (53%) of older people reported needing assistive devices, including walking frames, canes and toilet chairs.

Thus ongoing crises will have an impact on the elderly’s mental health, restricted freedom of movement, a lack of access to food and basic services such as healthcare, housing, and pensions and other social benefits. Worsening security and the suspension of social benefits for hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people have meant the situation for older people continues to deteriorate.

The Madrid International Plan of Action on Aging (MIPAA), adopted by UN Member States in 2002, refers to the situation of older persons in emergency situations under its Priority Direction 1: Older persons and development. MIPAA focuses on equal access to food, shelter and medical care. In addition, it urges recognition of and support for the contributions of older persons to their communities after an emergency situation.

Global Action on Aging advocates for adopting more comprehensive and internationally binding policies addressing the problems and potential contributions of older persons at all stages of an emergency.

This section, launched in the spring of 2003, provides information on the legal and humanitarian aspects of older persons in emergency situations along with materials that Global Action on Aging has submitted to international bodies. The section also follows developments in line with MIPAA’s recommendations. http://globalag.igc.org/armedconflict/unochaprotectionpaper.htm


Under international humanitarian law, the elderly are protected as persons not participating in the hostilities. On the one hand, they enjoy protection from abusive behaviour on the part of the party to the conflict in whose power they are, being persons protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention. As such, they benefit from all the provisions that set forth the fundamental principle of humane treatment. In situations of non-international armed conflict, they are protected by Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions. On the other hand, as members of the civilian population, they benefit from the rules of international humanitarian law relating to the conduct of hostilities. These rules, which uphold the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants and prohibit attacks directed against the civilian population, were given written expression in the Additional Protocols of 1977. The elderly also enjoy special protection because of their weakened condition, which renders them incapable of contributing to their country's war effort.

The Fourth Geneva Convention contains two provisions affording special protection to the elderly. These are as follows.

  • Article 14, para. 1: "In a time of peace, the High Contracting Parties and, after the outbreak of hostilities, the Parties to that, may establish in their own territory and, if the need arises, in occupied areas, hospital and safety zones and localities so organized as to protect from the effects of war, wounded, sick and aged persons, children under fifteen, expectant mothers and mothers of children under seven."
  • Article 17: "The Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to conclude local agreements for the removal from besieged or encircled areas, of wounded, sick, infirm, and aged persons, children and maternity cases, and for the passage of ministers of all religions, medical personnel and medical equipment on their way to such areas.”

War and conflict punctuate the lives of millions of older adults around the world. These not only create the long-term difficulties in their day-to-day tasks but create complex lingering stress that impacts their mental health and permanent “scarring” occurs as a result of a variety of wartime experiences such as witnessing death, evacuation and food shortages and fear. These experiences have led to lifetime trauma in their minds leaving them vulnerable to mental health problems, suicidal ideation and psychological distress.

Ensuring Post-war rehabilitation both physical and mental means including the older population in the planning and delivery of services and supporting their capacity to live independently once the emergency has passed. Humanitarian assistance, access to relief aid and equally important emotional support mechanisms to bring them out of the trauma of war. While the governments do their work, it is the responsibility of the community and society to support the elderly by helping them and engaging with them to bring them back to normalcy.

https://www.helpage.org/newsroom/latest-news/ukraine-older-people-face-abandonment-and-isolation-as-conflict-with-russia-intensifies/ https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/resources/documents/misc/57jqx9.htm

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