ABU DHABI // Emiratis over the age of 60 make up a little more than 1 per cent of the population, but their numbers are growing rapidly.
In the past people took great pride in caring for their elderly parents and grandparents, but in the complex modern world not all families are able to dedicate the time to cope with geriatric relatives.
For families of people in need of long-term care it is more a question of lack of knowledge than lack of caring, said Andrew Escamilla, chief executive of ProVita, which is one of the few companies that provides residential care homes in the UAE.
And there are inherent health risks in caring for someone who is seriously ill without skilled assistance, Mr Escamilla said.
Older people who suffer from geriatric disorders can have highly specific needs that can be daunting for a family member to handle alone, especially someone with a job or children. Geriatrics often need precise schedules, appointments and dietary restrictions.
Fatima Al Ali, an employee at the Dubai Community Development Authority, said the situation had been made more difficult by the fact that fewer extended families now live together.
Until now, geriatric care has not been a priority in a young country that has an average age of 30.
But rising life expectancy - 77.1 years for men and 78.2 for women - means an ageing population that will soon need increased care.
Services have been inconsistent from emirate to emirate, and few centres are available to offer long-term care outside of a general hospital setting, which does not always provide an ideal environment for patients in need of chronic or terminal care.
"Often patients are more successful at home or in a comfortable, familiar environment where they are able to be nurtured by their loved ones," said Michael Davis, chief clinical officer at ProVita.
A popular alternative to residential care is home-care service, such as that provided by Dubai's Community Development Authority.
The Weleef programme, which began in 2011, offers free services to Emiratis over 60 who live in Dubai. It is particularly useful for those without serious health concerns, or who might have only minor physical impairments.
More of a social service than a medical provider, Weleef is aimed primarily at keeping people socially and culturally connected.
Staff and volunteers take on the roles of family members, spending time with patients, keeping them entertained and taking them to medical or other appointments.
The Dubai Health Authority's Community Centre for the Elderly in Al Mamzar, which also offers in-home care, recently introduced a daycare, outpatient programme.
It provides geriatric assessment and vaccinations "to encourage the elderly … to get themselves checked regularly so that they can reduce or even prevent the complications associated with ageing", said the centre's director, Jassem Kalban.
It is hoped that outpatient testing and attentive home care by families or medical professionals would succeed in detecting problems early, especially related to illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease that are associated with ageing.
"There aren't so many long-term care facilities here, so there is a tremendous need," Mr Escamilla said.
His company plans to open two centres within the next year for rehabilitation and recovery, each with 100 beds.