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Climate Change and the Forgotten Elderly: Understanding the Overlooked Impact

By Dr Douglas Rasbash

29 April 2024



According to the United Nations Population Division the global population is ageing. They say it is because of declining fertility rates and rising life expectancy. On January 9th, 2023, a World Social Report titled “Leaving No One Behind In An Ageing World” was published by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (UNDESA) which said that by 2050, 16% of the global population will be over sixty-five. Botswana is a good example of an aging population; with average longevity being 49 in 1966 and 69 in 2023. While fertility rates have fallen from 6.7 in 1966 to 2.7 in 2023. The average growth rate over next 35 years will reduce from about 0.6 percent today to zero in 2060. That the population of Botswana may never rise to over 3 million is hugely important (Rasbash, 2023). Most countries have rising life expectancy and an ageing population, trends that emerged first in developed countries are now seen in virtually all developing countries. The aged population is currently at its highest level in human history. However, as Aronson, L. (2019) noted, the impact of climate change on this rapidly expanding group is largely forgotten. As the world grapples with the profound consequences of climate change, much attention has rightfully been focused on vulnerable populations such as children and women. In this blog, we delve into the unique challenges faced by the elderly in the context of climate change, exploring the physical, social, and economic impacts that render them particularly vulnerable.



Elderly man and woman walking in a flooded area.
Photo Credit: BBC


Climate change poses complex challenges for the elderly, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities and creating new risks. For example, in regions prone to extreme heatwaves, older adults may face difficulties accessing cool or air-conditioned spaces, increasing their susceptibility to heat-related illnesses. Changes in precipitation patterns can affect water availability, particularly in arid regions, impacting older individuals' ability to stay hydrated and maintain their health. Furthermore, the compounding effects of climate change and urbanization can lead to ‘heat island’ effects in densely populated areas, intensifying the heat stress experienced by elderly residents. Moreover, the social impact of climate change on the elderly extends beyond physical health concerns. Disruptions caused by extreme weather events can disrupt transportation systems, making it challenging for older adults to access essential services such as healthcare facilities or even shopping stores. Or worse, extreme weather events flooding drought fires will all impact the elderly that are unable to evade the oncoming catastrophes.


Health and safety 

Extreme heatwaves, intensified by rising global temperatures, can be particularly perilous for older individuals, who are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke and dehydration. Government advice is to stay home in heat waves unless it is really necessary to go out. Moreover, changes in air quality, including increased pollution and pollen levels, can worsen respiratory conditions, posing a significant threat to elderly individuals with pre-existing respiratory issues like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  Dinz, (2020 analysed the impact of heat waves on elderly mortality using distributed lag nonlinear models  and quantified the heat wave-related excess mortality of elderly people from 1985 to 2005 and made projections for the near future (2030 to 2050) and the distant future (2079–2099) under the climate change scenarios RCP4.5 and RCP8.5. The results showed that mortality rates for elderly due to cardiovascular respiratory and related problems increased with heat waves and are expected to go on increasing as temperatures increase.


Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires, are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change. Elderly populations often face greater difficulties in evacuating or finding refuge during such disasters, leading to increased risks of injury, displacement, and trauma. Additionally, access to medical care and essential services may be compromised in the aftermath of these events, further endangering the health and well-being of older adults. Beyond the physical toll, climate change can also exacerbate social isolation and loneliness among the elderly. Disruptions caused by extreme weather events can sever social connections, isolating older individuals from their communities and support networks. For those living alone or in long-term care facilities, the absence of social interaction and support systems can have detrimental effects on mental health and overall quality of life. Recognising the increasing problem Antal (2023) investigated the extent to which climate change related shocks affected older people in urban settings and concluded that older people are especially vulnerable and at heightened risk from climate change related stressors in urban areas. Older adults and individuals with pre-existing psychiatric disorders are independently both high-risk groups that are predisposed to the specific mental and physical health impacts of climate change (Watterson 2014). Furthermore, climate-induced displacement can strain familial and social bonds, as older adults may be forced to relocate due to environmental hazards or loss of livelihood. This displacement can uproot established social networks and contribute to feelings of dislocation and alienation among the elderly, exacerbating mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.


The Economic Impact:

Beyond the physical aspects, economic vulnerabilities among the elderly are compounded by climate change. Older adults often rely on fixed incomes, pensions, and savings, making them particularly susceptible to the financial burdens imposed by climate-related disasters. Property damage, loss of assets, and increased healthcare costs resulting from extreme weather events can strain already limited financial resources, forcing elderly individuals to make difficult trade-offs between essential needs such as housing, medication, and food. The elderly will have lifetime investments in their homes and properties which when affected by climate change will undermine their household economies. Brown, (2012) observed a set of compounding factors undermining the ability of older residents to adequately cope with accelerated sea level rise flooding in coastal urban locations. Namely, owning an older home in a declining neighbourhood and living alone can trap older individuals in place and increase their flood risk. This economic instability further undermines the financial security of the elderly, particularly those without adequate retirement savings or social support systems. Moreover, climate change can disrupt local economies, leading to job losses and reduced access to employment opportunities for older workers. Because African economies are essentially agrarian and that the elderly are more dependent on rural and traditional ways of life, the economic impact can be dire.  As argued by Baarsch, (2020) results show historical mean climate-induced losses between 10 and 15 percent of GDP per capita growth. Baarch suggested that the majority of African economies are poorly adapted to their current climatic conditions. Undoubtedly, the ability of African countries to reach their SDGs targets is self-evident with the attendant risk of instability, migration across African countries, of decreased trade and economic cooperation opportunities as a consequence of climate change – exacerbating its negative consequences. All of the foregoing will impact the elderly, disabled and less economically mobile sections of society.


Proposed Solutions:

To address the challenges faced by the elderly in the context of climate change, a multi-faceted approach is needed, encompassing policy interventions, community-based initiatives, and technological innovations. One key strategy is to enhance the resilience of healthcare systems to better meet the needs of older adults during extreme weather events and other climate-related emergencies. This can include developing targeted outreach programs to educate healthcare providers and caregivers on the unique health risks faced by elderly populations and ensuring the availability of medical supplies and resources in disaster-prone areas. Furthermore, investing in infrastructure upgrades and urban planning strategies can help create age-friendly environments that prioritize the safety and well-being of older adults. This may involve retrofitting buildings to improve energy efficiency and heat resilience, expanding public transportation options to enhance mobility for elderly residents, and implementing green spaces and cooling shelters to mitigate the effects of urban heat islands.


Additionally, incorporating the perspectives and experiences of older adults into climate adaptation and mitigation planning processes is essential for ensuring that solutions are inclusive and equitable. At the community level, fostering social connections and support networks is crucial for mitigating the social isolation experienced by many elderly individuals. This can be achieved through the establishment of neighbourhood-based resilience hubs, where residents can access resources, information, and social activities during times of crisis. Volunteer-based programs, such as buddy systems or phone check-ins, can also provide essential support to elderly individuals living alone or in isolated areas.


Moreover, leveraging technology, such as telehealth services and remote monitoring devices, can improve access to healthcare and social services for elderly populations, particularly those in rural or underserved communities. By implementing these solutions and prioritizing the needs of the elderly, we can build more resilient communities and ensure that older adults can thrive in the face of climate uncertainty. It is imperative that policymakers, community leaders, and individuals alike recognize the importance of addressing the intersection of climate change and aging to create a more just and sustainable future for all.



Elderly woman receiving an injection.
Photo Credit: TheTricontental.org


Final thoughts and conclusions:

The aging of the population can be attributed to impressive improvements in longevity; however, extensive use of non-renewal resources and development have pushed the planet beyond its natural boundaries and enjoying the benefits of longevity can only occur if steps are taken toward a more sustainable world. (Gutterman, 2020). However, in the discourse surrounding climate change, it is imperative not to overlook the disproportionate impact on the elderly. As temperatures rise and extreme weather events become more frequent, older adults face escalating health risks, social isolation, and economic hardships. Addressing the needs of this vulnerable population requires comprehensive strategies that prioritize adaptation, resilience, and inclusivity. Efforts to mitigate climate change must consider the unique vulnerabilities of the elderly, ensuring equitable access to resources, support services, and community networks. In addition, it is imported to add that the events associated with climate change also compromise the ability of States to support basic human rights for older persons, such as the rights to safety, security, social protection, care and support (Gutterman, 2020).


By recognizing and addressing the challenges faced by older adults, we can work towards building a more resilient and compassionate society in the face of climate uncertainty. It is time to elevate the voices of the forgotten elderly and enact policies that safeguard their well-being in a changing climate. A point worth further consideration is whether the climate change agenda has become excessively driven by the concerns of younger people who are justifiably concerned about the future. The blog is best summed up by an item in The Lancet Countdown. (2020) entitled ‘Older People and Climate Change: The Case for Better Engagement and presented the case for wider recognition and deeper engagement of the impact of climate change in particular and wider environmental issues in general on the elderly.



Bibliography and further reading:

Antal, H., & Bhutani, S. (2023). Identifying linkages between climate change, urbanisation, and population ageing for understanding vulnerability and risk to older people: A review. Ageing International, 48(3), 816-839.

Aronson, L. (2019). Climate Change and the Forgotten Elderly: Understanding the Overlooked Impact. Journal of Aging Studies, 50, 100738.

Baarsch, F., Granadillos, J. R., Hare, W., Knaus, M., Krapp, M., Schaeffer, M., & Lotze-Campen, H. (2020). The impact of climate change on incomes and convergence in Africa. World Development, 126, 104699.

Bernstein, A. (2020). Climate Change, Older Adults and Social Support: Barriers to Action. JAMA Internal Medicine.

Brown, L. M., Smith, J. D., Ebi, K. L., & Kuller, L. H. (2012). The Impact of Climate Change on the Elderly: A Case Study in Miami-Dade County, Florida. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Diniz, F. R., Gonçalves, F. L. T., & Sheridan, S. (2020). Heat wave and elderly mortality: Historical analysis and future projection for metropolitan region of São Paulo, Brazil. Atmosphere, 11(9), 933.

Gutterman, Alan, Climate Change and Older Persons (December 10, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4044003 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4044003

Hill, N. S. (2021). Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life.

Lezzoni, L. I. (2019). Addressing the Health Risks of Climate Change in Older Adults. The New England Journal of Medicine.

Magnus, G. (2014). The Age of Aging: How Demographics are Changing the Global Economy and Our World.

Peck, S. R., Litt, J. S., & Coates, M. J. (2016). Heatwaves and Older People: The Role of the Health and Care System. Journal of the American Planning Association.

Rasbash D.L , Phetogo G. (2023, July 23). Population Sensation. Retrieved from https://www.thegazette.news/features/population-sensation/

Rutherford, S., & Hanks, A. S. (2018). Aging in the Time of Climate Change. Public Health Reviews.

UK Health Protection Agency. (2012). The 2020 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change: Responding to Converging Crises.

Watterson, A. D., James, P. W., & Leyland, A. H. (2014). Climate Change and the Health of Older Adults. Maturitas.

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