Large extended families bound by mutual care and respect have formed the nucleus of Emirati society for generations. As such, it has been a society that has set an example in its care of the elderly population.
No wonder, then, that in 2000 an estimated 99.5 per cent of elderly Emiratis lived with their families, while the remaining 0.5 per cent were cared for by the Government because they had medical needs for which their families could not provide. While this statistic is encouraging, another revealed by Dubai authorities in 2010 showed that 468 (out of about 8,000) elderly people in the emirate had not been provided sufficient care.
There are several possible explanations. There has been a demographic shift as young people tend to move away from home, and raise their families in a separate house. Also, as many women enrol in higher education and enter the workforce, they have other duties in addition to their traditional caregiver roles.
These are inevitable, and in most cases beneficial, trends in a modernising society. At the same time, we must be careful that social alienation of senior citizens isn't a side effect. Elderly people are among the most vulnerable segments of the population, and they can suffer in silence if they become isolated.
Many people have called for a special fund to cater for the elderly. The idea has merit, but this cannot be purely a government issue. A community support structure for the elderly needs to provide more than just basic material needs. And that support seems to be slowly taking shape within the community and among organisations coming forward to address this issue.
The Waleef initiative in Dubai, as reported by The National yesterday, is a step in that direction. The organisation already serves 84 elderly people in the emirate, and aims to reach twice that number next year.
More data is needed on the size and requirements of the UAE's dependent elderly population. Making this a priority is not a question of choice, it is a family obligation. Society at large, as well as government, must step up to the challenge now.