Old and poor in Haiti suffer mightily after the quake

Elderly Haitians and those with disabilities have been disproportionately affected by January's earthquake, which laid waste to the capital, Port-au-Prince, and made essential medical supplies scarce.
By William Booth
Saturday, March 13, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- It was always hard to be old in Haiti, but after the earthquake, to be old and poor feels like a curse, say those who are both.

"We struggle to maintain a little dignity, but look at us," said Lauranise Gedeon, who sat, embarrassed, in soiled sheets in the ruins of the municipal nursing home here in the capital.

Residents are bathed outdoors with a bucket and try to cover their nakedness. They spend the long, hot afternoons in hospital beds lined up side by side, six to a tent, fanning themselves with pieces of cardboard. They beg for water to drink.

"No water today. We are waiting. We are waiting for medicines, for the doctors, for God to help us," said nurse Yolette Fran├žois. "I am serious. These old people have a lot of troubles."

Her patients, about 80 men and women, were scooping rice and beans from dented metal bowls. Asked what they needed most, one resident said, "Something for the flies." Another complained that her spoon had been stolen and held up her fingers, sticky with food. "Look!"

The nurse whispered, "We have run out of diapers for them."

In Haitian Creole, the old are called "gran moun," and they are relatively few. Those 65 and older make up just 3.4 percent of Haiti's population, compared with 13 percent in a developed country such as the United States, because to attain such seniority in a nation beset by high infant mortality, poverty and disease is an accomplishment.

But in the weeks after the catastrophic Jan. 12 earthquake, the elderly appear to have been forgotten.

"They are invisible, and we need to do more to help, because they are desperate," said Ronald Blain, a Haitian government official working for the U.N. Human Settlements Program.

This week, a working group of U.N. experts has been created to look into the situation of Haitians with disabilities, especially the elderly, who have been disproportionately affected by the disaster.

In a statement, the chairman of the U.N. committee, Mohammed al-Tarawneh, said that "while relief workers are struggling to provide aid to the people of Haiti and while the situation remains difficult for everyone, persons with disabilities are particularly affected by the crisis," especially those whose caregivers were killed or injured.

The elderly hobble through the daily chaos of Port-au-Prince, forced into rubble piles by speeding convoys of aid workers in their big white SUVs. There are few sidewalks now, and no ramps, no rails. To use tap-taps, the ubiquitous public transport that is a pickup truck with a bench in the bed, the old are lifted like luggage.

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