In December, I visited the Philippines with HelpAge International staff to observe first-hand our efforts during Typhoon Haiyan. My immediate reaction was shock - but that was quickly tempered by the optimism I felt when I saw how effectively we have been at mobilising older Filipinos to help and support the most vulnerable of those affected by the disaster. I visited some of the areas which were devastated when Typhoon Haiyan struck - including Tacloban, the worst hit town and the centre of the emergency relief effort.
As the team and I drove from Tacloban airport, nobody spoke. We were all absolutely horrified even though we had seen the television pictures. Nothing prepares you for the extent of this catastrophe: the debris of shattered infrastructure; homes flattened; ways of life swept away.
Together with our local partner organisation Coalition of Services for the Elderly (COSE), HelpAge's activities on the ground are focused on empowering older people in the aftermath of the storm: a combination of poverty and lack of support means older people are often vulnerable and traumatised in emergency situations.
In Ormoc District Hospital we have established a peer counselling unit with the help of older volunteers from the Confederation of Older Persons' Associations of the Philippines (COPAP). The programme will eventually provide psychosocial support to 3,000 extremely vulnerable and traumatised older people. Another critical thing is the setting up and coordination of the Age and Disability Task Force: a group of ageing specialists with years of experience to advise other aid agencies and the local authorities on how to ensure the overall relief and recovery effort includes older people.
But perhaps the most inspiring part of the trip has been witnessing the spirit of the Filipino people themselves; their bravery, generosity and tireless compassion. This was exemplified for me by Bernie, a businessman who was kind enough to help us with logistics in Kananga where we brought help hard to reach communities, including an indigenous mountain village where the fragile housing was particularly vulnerable to devastation. Bernie allowed us to use his warehouse and his staff to pack the relief aid and he provided a truck completely free of charge to deliver it. While it is really important to recognise that external assistance in these situations is critical, people like Bernie remind us that key support also comes from within the local community.
It has been a tremendous experience - haunting and inspiring in equal measure. We are at the one-mile mark of a long and challenging marathon which we must plan and implement well, while also being accountable and creative. Most importantly, we must come up with a programme which, over the next two or three years, really helps older men and women rebuild their lives after this terrible disaster.