x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Hope of breakthrough in care for UAE elderly

A new 20-year plan to look after the UAE's growing elderly population has been formulated.

Community Development Authority representatives, including director general Khaled Al Kamda (beside the bed), visiting elderly Maitha Khalfan Haib at her home. Jaime Puebla / The National
Community Development Authority representatives, including director general Khaled Al Kamda (beside the bed), visiting elderly Maitha Khalfan Haib at her home. Jaime Puebla / The National

DUBAI // Experts in the care of the elderly hope a 20-year plan for senior citizens being considered by the Government recommends more rehabilitation facilities, daycare centres and home services.

If the UAE is to meet the needs of its growing elderly population, the country also needs more geriatric specialists and education for family members, they say.

"We do require trained geriatricians, trained nurses, trained social workers, trained caregivers," said Dr Salwa Al Suwaidi, a geriatrician and director of the Community Centre for the Elderly in Dubai.

"It's very important for people to know how to deal with the elderly. They're not coming from Mars, they're not aliens. They're living with us."

The Ministry of Social Affairs submitted the plan to the federal Cabinet this month.

The minister, Mariam Al Roumi, describes it as a major scheme to ensure the flow of health care, social services, housing and financial security for the nation's elderly.

"The broader lines of the plan aim to guarantee a world-standard health care system for the elderly, with a special health card issued to senior citizens that entitles them to the medical attention and health care services they need," Mrs Al Roumi told Al Ittihad, Arabic-language sister newspaper to The National.

The minister declined to discuss the plan's details because it has not yet received Cabinet approval.

Dr Al Suwaidi praised the idea of reacting early to projected population growth.

"It means that we are a clever country - doing the thing before actually having a problem," she said.

In 2010 there were about 40,000 Emiratis over the age of 60; the Ministry of Health expects that figure to increase by 20 per cent by 2020.

"The number of older locals is definitely growing, and I don't think there's adequate infrastructure to deal with those numbers," said Dr Senthil Meenrajan, consultant geriatrician at American Hospital Dubai.

Rapid social change has created pressure to find new ways to care for the elderly, said Rima Sabban, assistant professor of sociology at Zayed University. More women work outside the home, and relatives who once would have cared for their elders now need more options. However, nursing homes are frowned upon in local culture.

"This is a major issue facing, in particular, the less well-off families and also the more dysfunctional families where family bonding is weaker," Prof Sabban said. "So you see that those elderly are left behind, and some of them are put in hospitals - and even the hospitals don't know what to do with them.

"There is a pressing need to have places to care for them."

Dr Meenrajan suggested introducing more rehab facilities to address the gap in medical options between hospital care and living at home.

"With older people, it's never black and white," he said. "You always have these different shades of grey where they need varying levels of care."

Dr Al Suwaidi said the country also needs more daycare centres, where senior citizens can receive care and socialise while their families are at work.

Another way to help elderly people to stay in their communities would be to offer more home services, said Khaled Al Kamda, director general of the Dubai Community Development Authority. CDA volunteers visit senior citizens at home through a programme called Weleef.

"It's about time we pay back," Mr Al Kamda said. "It's the gratitude for the people who have built the country and raised the generation that is leading the country. We hope that a programme like Weleef is implemented countrywide."

Overall, a government plan for the elderly is "something to really support", Prof Sabban said.

"I'm really happy to see something like this being implemented in the Gulf. That shows that though these countries are moving fast into modernity, they are also conscious of trying to resolve some of the issues that are resulting from this fast move."