As our parents age they depend increasingly on us. Social customs which have been built around this fact seem to be eroding today. Civic leaders, think tanks, religious leaders and decision makers should all be thinking today about how to design a social system that empowers and values the elderly of tomorrow.
In a modern society, we lose touch with our duty to our parents
Whenever I see an elderly person, I feel I have to reassure myself about my own continuing care 50 or so years down the line. Will I be able to benefit from high-quality social support by government agencies? Will my children, when I am old and vulnerable, give proper attention to my needs?
Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the UAE, said: "Humans have to have values; humans have to respect themselves thus use their respect and values to serve their parents with pride."
In Islam Muslims are bound by a duty of care towards their parents. It is mandated in the Quran that Muslims must worship none but God and to be kind to their parents. According to the Holy Book, gratitude to God and to one's parents go hand in hand to earn heavenly rewards.
And yet, with the fast pace of development in the UAE, it is becoming clearer that some younger Emiratis are losing their family ties and values. Today the abandonment of the elderly is a serious problem. Many Emiratis are busy hunting for recognition and better prospects in life and, in the process, forgetting about the parental love and support that underpins their success. Success in life and a responsibility towards one's parents are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they go hand in hand.
Children have to come to this conclusion on their own, but the Government nonetheless has an important role to play in caring for the nation's elderly. In Sharjah, this job is being led by the Social Services Department, which has emphasised care of the elderly in their sustainable development plans, and which has created numerous policies and services to support this vulnerable group.
The Sharjah Social Services Department identified the plight of vulnerable elderly as early as 2005 with the launch of a targeted home-care programme. To date the department has identified and delivered services to approximately 2,000 elderly people, expanding its care network to the more remote and rural areas of Dhaid, Debba, Khor Fakkan, Almadam, Al Hamriyah and Mulaiha.
And in Dubai, the Community Development Authority has launched Weleef, a social community service programme aiming to foster, protect and improve the lives of the elderly by targeting households with the necessary services, programmes and care. The Weleef programme has already identified and helped with several cases in which elderly people had either been defrauded by their care givers, or who received little or no support from their families.
These programmes are good news and a welcome start to the UAE's social service efforts. But they should not serve as a replacement for family. Youngsters and children of all ages have a duty towards their elderly relatives. And despite the UAE's admirable record of social care programmes - backed by our cultural and religious predisposition towards the preservation of the family - no amount of direct government action can ensure that 100 per cent of the nation's elderly receive the care and attention they deserve.
Shirking one's responsibility towards their parents is not only a UAE phenomenon.
Singapore's social services found it necessary to introduce the Parents Maintenance Act in 1995, which gives an elderly person or any caregiver residing with an elderly person - or any family member for that matter - the legal right to file a court case against their children mandating payment for parental care. Failure to comply can result in fines or even a prison term of up to six months.
Statistics for the first five years following the implementation of the law revealed that more than 400 applicants filed for support from their children. Four out of five applicants were successful in forcing their children to support them financially.
This may be more than the UAE needs to do, but there's no question that the Emirates has some work to do.
For instance, the UAE does not yet have proper clubs offering an enjoyable and safe environment for the elderly to socialise and make friends. No community shelter is available for single or abandoned senior citizens who require some sort of social care in the private or public sector. This is a shame given that the elderly are one of the most vulnerable groups in society, deserving of a comprehensive level of service available from the private or public sector.
We depend on our parents when we are young. Their care and sacrifices fostered the current younger generation. And as our parents age they depend increasingly on us. Civic leaders, think tanks, religious leaders and decision makers should be thinking today about how to design a social system that empowers and values the elderly of tomorrow.
Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Maktoum is a social commentator based in Dubai