Access to water and sanitation for older persons – Celebrating the International Day of Older Persons

By Catarina de Albuquerque, SWA Executive Chair

1 Oct, 2017 in Events

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Today, October 1st, we celebrate the International Day of Older Persons. This is a day to celebrate the experience and wisdom of those people in our lives, who have experienced a world that we have not, and who perhaps see today’s world differently from the way that we see it. We owe a debt of life to our parents and grandparents, and a debt of education and experience from so many others who have enriched our lives. Unfortunately we must also recognize that this debt often remains unpaid, and the people to whom we owe so much are left to suffer in ways that are easily alleviated.

At Sanitation and Water for All, we are working to ensure that everyone has adequate access to water and sanitation services. Recognising the needs of older people is essential for our common future.

As we grow older, our immune systems grow weaker, and we become more vulnerable to disease, including those caused by poor quality water and badly managed toilets. A lack of access to water and sanitation can also exacerbate other health problems. Incontinence, for example, is a common problem for older persons – and not having a toilet nearby makes this worse. This is a significant issue for people living in slums or informal housing in developing countries, but it is also a problem in the West, in Europe. A lack of public toilets can lead to older people becoming house-bound, because a trip into town could lead to an embarrassing situation in our cities, where public toilets are increasingly being closed down or inaccessible because they are not properly managed.

Problems such as incontinence in women are often present due to inadequate care when the person was younger. Childbirth can lead to weaker bladder and bowel control, which is easily remedied when the individual is young – but if it is not properly handled when young can lead to incontinence in old age.

Older persons tend to have reduced incomes, and in many countries may not have access to a pension. This can lead to affordability problems in accessing many services including water and sanitation, as well as health and housing and other essential services. In many cultures, people who are older and no longer in active work lose status and power and with this lose their ability to make claims on resources, or to have their needs heard and understood. This can also affect their ability to access water and sanitation, particularly where physical strength agility is required to pump water, or to walk across uneven ground to a toilet. Widows may lose rights to their homes, which then impacts their access to services such as water and sanitation.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals demand that no-one is left behind – and this must actively include older persons. Specifically, SDG 6 requires that everyone, including those people who are liable to be vulnerable or marginalised, have access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene services.

Unfortunately, there is limited information available on older people's access to WASH and this is liable to compound older person’s access to services. More needs to be done to both understand discriminatory practices that limit older persons’ access to water and sanitation, as well as to find solutions to address this.

Active participation in family and community life, engagement in decisions made on access to water and sanitation, including on the technologies and siting of services, are essential for elderly persons’ access to services. Cities and towns must reconsider how to configure the urban infrastructure so that older persons are able to engage in public life without worrying about whether they will be able to find a toilet, and whether it is safe to use. As the population of many countries ages, this will become more of a pressing issue and one that cannot be ignored.