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MIDEAST: Elderly Receiving Better Care

N. Janardhan

DOHA, Jun 29 2009 (IPS) - In a region where indigenous human resources are scarce, the oil-rich Gulf countries are not only mindful of population growth, but are quickly learning to address the concerns of the elderly.

Ageing population has been cited as one of the major driving factors that has dramatically increased healthcare demand in the region. Improvements in life expectancy mean more elderly people require care in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

It is estimated that the population of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will double by 2025.

Saudi Arabia – the biggest and the most populous GCC country – is tipped to experience a seven-fold increase in the number of those over 65 years of age during the next 25 years.

According to the UAE Ministry of Health, the number of nationals over the age of 60 years is nearly 13 percent of the total indigenous population of about 850,000.

Regional governments are developing various socio-economic measures related to ageing – treating it as a human rights issue and even urging redefinition of what constitutes old age.

With life expectancy in the UAE rising to 81 years for women and 76 years for men, the UAE Ministry of Social Affairs has called for revising senility and old age categories to include only those over 80 years as opposed to 60.

In a region bound by religion, culture and tradition, it is rare for families to resort to institutional care for the elderly. As a result, the governments have had to take into account the importance of retaining the family environment while devising population ageing policies.

About 29,000 elderly people receive good care and support from their families, society, and government in Qatar, Yusuf Al-Muftah, Director of the Qatar Foundation for Elderly Care, said.

"Though the proportion of the elderly people compared to the population is low at present, Qatar’s efforts are targeted towards 2050, when 27 percent of the population would be over 60," he added.

"Despite Qatar witnessing a social transformation to nuclear families, the tradition of family bonds continues to be very strong. As a result, only a negligible section of the elderly population is seeking shelter in the Foundation," Al-Muftah said.

Qatar’s emphasis on the elderly, according to Al-Muftah, has resulted in the government spending three times more on the healthcare of senior citizens compared to the youth. This includes a unique project announced in May to create exclusive meeting places for senior citizens modeled on the traditional Qatari 'majlis' (talking shops).

"The idea behind the project is to provide them more avenues to meet each other and share their thoughts, while leading a secluded life," Al-Muftah said, explaining that this is part of "Qatar’s national strategy for the welfare and rehabilitation of the elderly population."

Mobile health units, which include a nurse, physician and social worker provide health, social and psychological care to the elderly at their residences – this trend has become both popular and effective.

In the UAE, 11,000 elderly people receive social assistance and take advantage of the shelters and day clubs that have been established to ensure continuity in family ties.

The first geriatric hospital opened in the UAE in May. Built at a cost of 6.5 million dollars, the state-of-the-art Obaid Allah Geriatric Hospital in Ras Al- Khaimah – one of the seven emirates that make up the UAE – can accommodate 126 patients and is equipped with an intensive care unit and recreation facilities.

Only those patients who need special care that cannot be offered at home – or do not receive adequate family care – find themselves in such hospitals or other medical facilities like the Abu Dhabi Rehabilitation Centre, which also provides psychological counselling to ensure a "holistic healing" process for elderly patients.

In order to raise awareness regarding the needs of this segment of the population, the UAE hosted the Abu Dhabi International Ageing Conference last year to discuss mechanisms for providing better social and psychological services to the elderly.

Underlining the need for special care for the less-fortunate elderly and encouraging inter-generational dialogue, the Health Authority of Abu Dhabi in the UAE’s capital has developed a student volunteer programme. This includes educating the community on health-related issues of the elderly and providing valuable services such as wheel-chair assistance, as well as office and administrative assistance.

In another trend of the state-driven efforts, organisations like the Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development – a member of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development – are becoming active.

In cooperation with U.N. agencies, governmental bodies, academic institutions and non-governmental organisations, the institute promotes family policies, initiatives and programmes at national, regional and international levels. It also helps develop a regional and international network of experts dealing with family issues, sponsors research projects, hosts workshops and disseminates information.

Qatar is working hard to "draft policies for the vulnerable sections of the society, especially elderly women, and encourages partnerships between state and civil society organisations to chalk out sustainable development programmes," said Noor Al-Malki of the Supreme Council of Family Affairs.

With ageing being "a great challenge of the 21st century," Al-Malki feels that the state will become more active in fulfilling the responsibilities of protecting the elders in future.

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