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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 13 November 2018

Cherish the wisdom of our senior citizens

I never spend time with an elderly person without learning something about life

The UAE government’s new policy focuses on honouring the hard work of senior Emiratis. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National
The UAE government’s new policy focuses on honouring the hard work of senior Emiratis. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

You just look after yourself” is the familiar refrain from my friend, also called Saeed, to my jestful suggestion that he should slow things down.

We are sipping mint tea in the beautiful sun-lit lounge at his Baniyas home. I don’t visit him nearly enough, but as always, when I am there, I am very happy to be.

Saeed, who is Emirati, and his wife Zahra are long-time family friends, and since my return to Abu Dhabi about seven years ago, after 20 years abroad, they have always been a source of support and wisdom. The time I spend on Saeed’s couch is made up of me intently listening to the stories of old Abu Dhabi, the benevolent reign of the nation’s founder, Sheikh Zayed, and general advice regarding marriage – they say I should consider it – and my health – they suggest I lay off the midnight shawarmas – always gets a mention, too.

It is that warmth that I get from Saeed and Zahra that I reflected on when I heard about the UAE government’s approval of a new national policy that was focused on improving and honouring the hard work and sacrifice of the UAE’s senior Emirati population.

Considering their vigorous lifestyles and love of travel, I wondered how my friends would feel about being considered elderly. And while this may be a bone of contention among so many, there is no doubt about what they and their generation have contributed to the UAE. Like many Emiratis their age, the couple grew up during a period when the country was going through a transformation. They saw the dirt roads developed into bitumen thoroughfares alongside the sprouting of the region’s now familiar glittering towers and business districts. Perhaps more importantly, they were often the faces that greeted the legion of international residents who have gone on to call the UAE home.

When Zahra met my mother at their workplace – the Abu Dhabi Marine Operating Company – in the early 1980s, it was a friendship that would bond both families for years to come, with various members flying to weddings in Australia and Abu Dhabi. As well as celebrating elderly citizens, I hope the new policy will encourage us to pay more attention and respect to all senior members of the community, no matter their nationality.

As a person fond of writing and listening to many a tale, I have always enjoyed spending time with those older than me, gleaning life lessons. That has been one of the blessings of my journalism career. I learnt a few tips when I was a young reporter for a local paper in Melbourne. Being a junior, I as given what was called the “jubilee beat”, which meant interviewing couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries.

It was by far my favourite period of the working week. Not only would I be offered a hearty meal, but the couples would tell me the secret of their enduring union over the lunch.

“We only have one rule,” I recall one woman telling me as she clasped her husband’s hand. “And that’s never going to sleep angry with each other. Yes, we can argue, but we don’t go to bed with bad feelings for each other.” Further to that I recall one man telling me his secret for wedding bliss was simple. “Have no expectations,” he explained. “I am not saying give up on life, just take it easy and things will be okay.”

But anecdotes and advice aside, perhaps my most memorable “senior” interaction was with music legend Quincy Jones in Abu Dhabi. It was four years ago and the pop maestro, then a sprightly 81 years old, told me it was best to always brush myself off after any setback.

“You have to live a life to have something to say. You have to make a lot of mistakes. The more mistakes you make, the better you are” he said. “The latest saying I fell in love with is that life is a lot like photography, you need a negative before you can develop. That is just so true.”

So here’s to Saeed, Zahra, the jubilee couples and Quincy. Their advice and open hearts continue to shape me and prove that in return for the attention we offer the elderly, the knowledge we receive is indeed invaluable and everlasting.

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How the UAE's new national orchestra can future-proof itself

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