Overlooked tsunami victims: the elderly

The Leeli sisters were opening their beachfront shop when the first wave hit. They ran looking for their kids. Grandmother was unintentionally left behind. She wasn't seen again.

That basic narrative about elderly family members lost or harmed is often repeated in Sri Lanka's hardest-hit tsunami areas - though it gets less notice than those detailing the plight of children.

In fact, as a fuller accounting of Dec. 26 takes place, it may be found that, proportionally, more seniors perished than did children, say Buddhist monks and volunteer groups at work along the coast. Early estimates put the number of elders killed in Sri Lanka at around 10,000, the same figure as for children.

As the affected seniors seek relief and shelter, they may in their own way be more vulnerable than children. Many report being newly alone, disoriented by the refugee camps, and deeply longing for home - and find it less easy to forget than do children, now often seen at play again.

These senior survivors especially need temporary shelters, bikes to get around, and direction on how they can be useful.

"Older people in disasters do get ignored. In the refugee camps no one wants to get close to them," says Tilak de Zoysa, a volunteer with HelpAge, a British-based aid group. "But we have found that older people are very useful in camps. They have experience and make real contributions when given the chance."

However enlightened such views may be, they are not generally the norm in post-disaster periods. In five camps visited by the Monitor, some seniors said they were uncomfortable with a lack of privacy and crowds of new people. Some missed family members who were in other camps. Many say they feel lost in an abyss of waiting. Those who lost sons or daughters say they often feel stricken or abandoned.

"We have heard more about children, but I suspect the elderly and children were equally affected," says Arvasi Patel, a UN refugee official in Sri Lanka.

Alois Singha, a fisherman for 60 years near Hikkaduwa, stands by himself at the Beautiful Temple refugee camp. His house by the sea is destroyed. But he walks the mile to the ocean every day and stays at the site for several hours. The walls are gone and water is unavailable, though, so he returns to camp in the evening. "I am doing nothing here," he says. "No one has told us whether we can have a tent at our home, or whether we can rebuild."

Usually, relief groups that serve the elderly approach older people directly to ensure they get the aid that is sometimes tossed into pushy crowds.

After the tsunami, HelpAge has distributed aid packs through the eldest member of each family. The kits contain "senior-sensitive" items including medicines, vitamins, and lotions as well as water, sleeping mats, sheets, sarongs, mosquito netting, candles, new clothes, and matches. In Sri Lanka, HelpAge (helpage.org) has brought aid to Galle, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, and small islands. In numerous interviews, the need for bicycles became clear, since many older people use them to get around.

Some 31,000 people perished in Sri Lanka, according to government estimates. Since 40 percent of the population is under age 19, the elderly, who are thought to have died in numbers similar to children, got hard hit proportionally. Still, no agency or government has any hard numbers yet. Such a tally may never be known, according to Nimal Ranatunga of HelpAge.

But visits along the coast suggest that the wave was a tragedy for seniors. In Narigama area, says an elderly fishmonger, 16 older people were killed, and two children. Among some 400 mostly young females at a factory in Kosgoda, no children were lost, but six grandparents were.

"Mostly in this area it was elderly who died, and some children, of course," says Bodhisumana Thero, a chief monk at the Kumara Maha Viharaya temple in the southwest. "The problem for our elderly was the speed of the water. The water came too quickly."

Survivors tell a basic story about seniors from Dec. 26: At the de Silva household in Kosgoda, husband and wife fled with the two kids, and sheepishly report, in front of the grandmother, that they forgot her. Grandmother de Silva says, "I survived by holding onto a pillar in the house. I am glad the house did not fall down."

In Narigama, K.R. Gity and her brother began carrying the 82-year-old senior Gity after the first wave. But the second came with too much force, and she was ripped from their arms.

The character of the tsunami itself was significant, some older survivors said. One said it was not a wave at all, but a "creature" - a wall of water that swirled and eddied and carried within it debris, like heavy chunks of conch, that made it dangerous, especially for those less nimble.

Yet elders were also resourceful. Some tell of finding exactly the right spot to be in. A fisherman in Amalangoda survived by sitting in a window frame placed diagonally to the ocean.

J. K. Jeselin, who is 88 years old and whose family of nine now lacks a house with a roof and windows, doesn't seem overly bothered to be at the Beautiful Temple. She is interested in everything happening around her. She had no TV or electricity before, so does not miss them now. She says that "a foreigner saved me" on Dec. 26, but doesn't know any more about the man.

Mainly, Ms. Jeselin is worried about another tsunami. But, as she puts it in the grandest tradition of the matriarch, "I'm not worried about it for myself; I am worried about my grandchildren."

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