When Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines in November 2013, many older people were traumatised by the loss of family members, destruction of houses and treasured possessions, loss of livelihoods, hunger, cold and fear of death.
Recognising their pressing need for emotional support, the Emergency Response Team from HelpAge International, the Coalition of Services of the Elderly (COSE) and the Confederation of Older People's Associations of the Philippines (COPAP) met to discuss how they could provide this, focusing on the province of Leyte.
Older people volunteer as counsellors
The Philippines has a strong network of older people's organisations, supported by COSE. It is the philosophy of HelpAge and COSE that older people understand best what their fellow older people need in any situation. COPAP therefore requested older people to volunteer as counsellors to those who had been affected by the typhoon.
COPAP leaders were requested to identify volunteers from 95 older people's organisations using the following criteria - those who had been trained as peer counsellors and community organisers, could speak the local dialect, and who had enough time to spare. It took a few days to identify volunteers and work out the logistics. In total, 13 volunteers were identified - 11 women and two men aged 60-75 years. On 2 December 2013, the first batch of five volunteers flew and sailed from Manila to Leyte.
The HelpAge and COSE team conducted an orientation with the first batch volunteers. Following batches were given orientation by the COPAP leaders. The orientation included discussions about common traumatic experiences of older people during emergencies, active listening, do's and don'ts of counselling, and how to keep notes of their visits in a log book.
The volunteers set up a desk in Ormoc District Hospital where older people could obtain information. Doctors and nurses recommended people for counselling. Between the beginning of December and the end of January, the volunteers visited 1,800 people in the hospital, mobile clinics run by MERCY Malaysia, and their own homes.
Providing emotional support
The volunteers sat with hospital patients for 20-30 minutes as they talked about their traumatic experiences. They also put up a table in the outpatient department to serve as a help desk. Two volunteers were assigned to talk with the hospital's out-patients as they queued up for check-ups. As well as providing emotional support, the volunteers informed each older person about their rights and entitlements, such as free vaccinations for pneumonia and influenza and discounts on all medicines, which many were unaware of.
Older people greatly appreciated the support. In a random visit by HelpAge and COSE staff, they said that the volunteers understood their concerns and knew about government programmes because they were older people themselves.
"We are very happy that you are here to listen to us. Your presence lessens our sadness and gives us strength to move forward with our lives," said 84-year-old Canete, who cares for her five-year-old grandson and had to give up selling fish after the typhoon destroyed her home.
The main issue was that the volunteers were affected by the stories they heard and needed an avenue to unload their distress. Regular sessions led by the COPAP team leader and COSE staff were set up each evening to help them de-stress and discuss how to provide further support.
Though they faced some difficulties, the volunteers found their overall experience rewarding. Salve Basiano, aged 69, said: "There is a sense of fulfilment. It is amazing how people you have just met share their emotions. It is like older people working together."
MERCY Malaysia, who provide out-patient services, were also enthusiastic, saying they would like a longer-term partnership to incorporate older people's concerns into their psychological support programme.
The counselling programme was funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
This article is taken from Ageways 82 on emergencies. Download the full issue of Ageways 82.
Watch the video Older people support each other after Typhoon Haiyan.