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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Spare a thought for the elderly and the lonely

To those of us accustomed to living in the UAE, the very idea of dying friendless and alone may seem strange, writes Peter Hellyer

An elderly man walks in Afrin this week. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
An elderly man walks in Afrin this week. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

On Wednesday, the funeral will take place in Barry, a town in Wales, of Leonard Fellows, a 82-year old former merchant seaman, who died a few weeks ago after spending his last months in a care home. The social worker who looked after him will attend, along with a representative of SSAFA, a charity for sailors, soldiers, airmen and their families, but there will be no relatives present. Fellows never married and his surviving sister, now over 90, lives in Australia. There will be no friends, since, according to local press reports, he appears to have had none, perhaps because he spent most of his life at sea.

Yet there will be more than two people at his funeral. Besides the charity representative, the RNLI, which runs Britain’s lifeboats, and the Royal British Legion, an organisation for veterans, will also be present, to pay their respects. So too will be representatives of the Merchant Navy Association, who will attend with a standard-bearer and will provide a Red Ensign flag to be draped upon his coffin. Following a public appeal, others too are expected to attend.

“In situations like this, when people have no family or friends, there should be some form of representation to honour the gentleman or lady involved,” according to an SSAFA spokesman.

Funerals like this are by no means unusual in Britain and Ireland, and in other countries too. In some funerals of former military veterans with no known relatives, dozens of local residents and people from voluntary organisations have turned out to mark their passing and to honour their service. The 2016 funeral of a former merchant sailor in Maynooth, Ireland, who had received not a single visitor for five years at his nursing home, was attended by more than 300 people.

Such stories are heart-warming. Inevitably, however, the question arises as to why these expressions of respect and, yes, care and concern, appear at funerals and not earlier.

To those of us accustomed to living in the UAE, the very idea of dying friendless and alone may seem strange. Here, the ties of family and friendship are still strong, part of the glue that binds society together. For Emiratis and many others, the concept of an extended family is still the norm. There are usually at least a few relatives within reach. Moreover, the regulations that make it difficult for older expatriates to stay in the UAE, unless sponsored by and supported by younger family members, have meant that most will return home for their twilight years.

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Perhaps, though, there are more people like Leonard Fellows among us than we realise, people who, regardless of their economic circumstances or their origins, or even their age, are passing their days lonely and without friends. They may have fallen upon hard times. They may have suffered personal tragedies that have robbed them of those upon whom they used to depend for companionship. There can be a wide variety of causes that have led them to withdraw from, or to be excluded from, the society around them. And, to be fair, that kind of exclusion, voluntary or otherwise, is not always easy to recognise.

This week the UAE celebrates International Day of Happiness, an occasion on which to give thanks for the special characteristics of this country that allow many of us, ourselves, our families and friends, to lead satisfying lives. While doing so, there’s scope, perhaps, for us all to spare a thought for those who may not be similarly fortunate, particularly for those who, for whatever reason, are deprived of friendship or who lack the support of their families.

The motives of those who will turn out this week to mark the passing of Leonard Fellows are praiseworthy. Many here would do the same. How much more of value, though, are the efforts to help those who are alone before the time of their funeral arrives.