Dubai: Children used to feel embarrassed when their neighbours noticed the "Home for Elderly People" car parked outside their homes.
Sons and daughters were concerned that it would give the impression they were sending their elderly parents to an old people's home — a Western concept that is not accepted by the vast majority of Arabs in the UAE and other countries.
In 2006, the words printed on the car drawing up outside homes in Sharjah was changed to read "Elderly People Home Care" — giving the meaning that services are provided to elderly people in their own homes.
Unlike in other societies where Westernised children would find it socially acceptable to send their elderly parents to elderly care centres, the bulk of UAE citizens bring the service to their parents at home.
Nearly 500 elderly people receive care at home, compared to nearly 35 elderly and ill people who live in the Old People's Home in Sharjah — one of four such centres established across the UAE.
However, the number of ageing people receiving services at their homes in Sharjah and its suburbs has reached nearly 1,200, Mariam Al Qatri, head of the home, told Gulf News.
"It is still not accepted [as a concept] by many children to send their parents to elderly homes," says Khuloud Abdullah Al Ali, manager of Elderly Home Care in Sharjah, said. The seven-year-old home care section is one of two sections at the home, which opened in 1986. The other section provides residential accommodation for scores of old people. Many suffer from conditions associated with old age, such as diabetes and in some cases Alzheimer's.
"Even some elderly people have some psychological problems when they enter the compound from the main gate which has a sign that says ‘Old People's Home'. We let them in from the other entrance," Khuloud said.
Home care provides two types of services to aging people: intensive care, which requires two-hour visits, and routine visits.
"All the cases we follow at [their] homes refuse to come here," Khuloud, in her 30s, said, referring to the home for the elderly.
She, herself, is another example.
"Definitely, not," Khuloud said when asked if she would ever think of bringing in her mother, who is currently receiving care at home. "And I don't wish to. Let her live at her home with dignity."
Fatima Abdullah, a 24-year-old volunteer at the care centre, said no matter how comfortable the aged person felt inside the home it would have been soul-destroying for them when their children put them in it.
"Frankly, the home here is very good. But it is better to live in your own home," ‘Amnah', one of the residents at the home said.
Amnah's real identity can't be revealed to protect residents' privacy.
A hidden pain surfaced in the resident's tone. The deep wrinkles on the face said a myriad things.
"Once you take the elderly person out of his/her environment, he or she will start feeling sad, miserable and distressed," psychiatrist Mohammad Wafiq told Gulf News.
"The elderly person will start having the feeling he is not wanted [by others] and ostracised, and this misery can't be felt but by those who pass through the same circumstances," the expert warned.
Amnah, who looks to be in her early 60s, has been living in the home for nearly nine years, claiming "there is no other place to go to" and she has "nobody in this world after the death of her parents."
Few people would send their ageing parents to elderly home centres as a solution to tension at home with their own family, social workers and experts have said.
However, the majority would send their elderly parents simply because they needed special health care, or there was nobody at home to take care of them, they added.
"I have received some people who said I am willing to pay as much as you ask, but please let my sick father [live] in the home because I don't have anybody to take care of him," Khuloud said.
"My reply would be ‘keep your father at home, and we will send somebody to take care of him there,'" she added.
And "yes, I received somebody like that" in reference to whether there are children who offered fees to keep the aging parent in the home because of tension in their own home.
"In this case, I would treat the case of the elderly parent as one that requires intensive care, and I would include a social counsellor and psychologist in the treatment."
‘Noora', another resident at the home, is taken frequently to visit relatives in Umm Al Quwain. The resident, who is an illiterate widow in her 70s, stays at the home because of deteriorating health in the absence of first-degree siblings. She also "likes to live in her own home".
"I like to be among people," she said. "Who doesn't like living with people?"
Some of the elderly at the home are just day residents, who enjoy spending time mixing with people from the same age group. ‘Mahmoud' is one of them.
The retired bus driver, who has nine children, goes to the home every day at 7.30am. At the home, he will find somebody to read the newspapers for him, or attend a Quran recital session, or have a little fun playing dominos with the ‘Boss,' or ‘Abbas'.
‘Abbas' — an unmarried former merchant, suffers from a hemiplegia, a paralysis of one side of the body. Being at the home is better than living alone, he said, adding he enjoys the activities on offer, which include regular trips to shopping centres.
"I love being here. At home, you might feel bored if you were alone," he said.
"When I am here, and I get engaged with these elderly people I treasure more God's myriad blessings," Fatima said.
Many aspects of deep-rooted family values and family relations in the well-knitted Arab Gulf society of the UAE have survived the rapid development across Arab societies. Or at least, the vast majority of people succeed in preserving these aspects, including those related to parents.
Also, respecting parents and taking good care of them in their final years is stressed in the Quran. While there are few homes for the elderly in the UAE, there are several such homes in each city in some other Arab countries.
Changes in lifestyle, the shift from being a member of an extended family to a nuclear one and daily economic pressures are all reasons behind the growing phenomenon of elderly homes in the Arab region, according to social experts.
"We have more than one trend," UAE sociologist Rima Sabban said, in reference to reasons behind sending ageing parents to these homes, or in particular hiring people to take care of them,
Apart from difficult health conditions, which people cite as a reason for sending ageing people into a home, experts acknowledge some children send their parents to these homes against their wishes.
During a programme shown recently on an Arab television channel, an ageing father broke into tears, saying he has cancelled the existence of his children from his life, and considers he has none. He was being sent to a home in Amman, Jordan while his children live in the UAE.
Sending ageing relatives to these homes against their wishes increases their concerns and causes depression. Medication in these cases become necessary, experts have said.
However, the concept of elderly homes in the West has changed to focus more on entertainment rather than just providing health services for bed-ridden or chair-ridden people.
People are enjoying so-called senior citizen privileges, including discounts for shopping.
"We don't need our societies to provide elderly homes," Sabban said. "We need them to provide elderly clubs, where our aging relatives can spend their time with each other socialising, exercising and playing games, as well as receiving good attention."