Some of the student volunteers from the AUS. Image Credit: SUpplied

The feeling of loneliness can be palpable in an old age home. Zaineb Al Amin's smiling face clouds over with sadness as she recalls a recent experience.

"I was sitting with an old lady the other day, and I asked her if she needed anything, and she looked at me wistfully and replied, ‘I just need your care'. It shook me up. Even though I have been doing this for quite a while, every time such a thing happens, it still leaves me shocked."

Zaineb is a student at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) who volunteers through its community services wing.

"They just want someone to sit with them and make them feel wanted," she continues. "The last time the elders from the [Sharjah Old People's] Home visited us at the AUS, I sat next to a lady who had an assistant. When the assistant moved away for something, the lady kept panicking and saying, ‘She left me! I am alone!' She wouldn't even allow me to go and get my lunch, she kept on begging me to stay with her. When you see such loneliness you can't help trying to connect with them." What Zaineb and other student volunteers at the AUS are addressing is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Consider this: according to the Bournemouth Daily Echo, a British newspaper, half a million people in the UK aged over 65 spent Christmas alone last year.

More than one in ten said they always or often feel lonely, and nearly half consider television their main form of company. With seven-and-a-half million single-person households in Britain in 2009, the plight of ‘elders', people over 60, has become a matter of real concern.

Families with ageing members who are not in a position to fully take care of the needs of their elders many a time have turned for help to state care institutions such as old people's homes.

But this social reality does not make it better or easier for the people involved, especially for the elderly. But the bright side of being in care facilities is that they have compassionate and dedicated people to look after them, and as in the case of AUS, even enjoy people or get to meet new people on special occasions.

In the UAE, the AUS has been working to create such occasions. The Community Services wing of the Student Activities department was in fact created to guide students to address such social issues.

"It's been four years now since we started inviting the elders from the Old People's Home to our campus every semester," says Aisha Ali, community services coordinator.

The activities include organising a charity marathon in which all schools and universities in the UAE participate, inviting the elders for their club fairs, blood donation drives, iftars during Ramadan, and National Day and International Day of the Elderly celebrations. "We also visit them whenever there is a celebration or any event at the Old People's Home," says Ali.

This tradition of volunteering has created a bond between the lonely elders and the student volunteers, says Ali. The high point for the elders at the home was when the AUS celebrated the International Day for the Elderly in October last year. The UAE had extended this for five days, a rare opportunity for the elders.

"We had two events for them," says Rania Alani, another student volunteer at the AUS. "We invited them over to our university on the first day where we had a gala welcoming committee with drums and the works to welcome them at the gates. We even held parades for them. Students from the Community Services, some volunteers from outside and workers from the old people's home gathered with them at the students' centre, chatted with them, and played games with them. They were very happy, as they are alone and starved of attention. Their faces were like little children, all lit up with glee! When you are with them it's like magic, they're smiling and laughing. They miss their families and that's why it means so much to them."

"One of the old ladies who I meet at the home told me she likes it when events are organised and the place is buzzing with people. They do not like it when it is quiet," says Zaineb.

It's not just students who can volunteer to make life a little less lonely for elderly. Anybody with time on their hands and the will to make an effort can do it too. Like Trevor Huchu, a graduate student, who resolved to make a difference in the elders' lives.

While he was studying for a degree, Huchu discovered such lonely souls at the Ajman Old People's Home. Whenever he could, Huchu visited them, sometimes taking small gifts, but mostly to just touch and smile at them, bringing a little sunshine to their dark lives. "Though many of them do not understand English, they understand the language of love and care," he says.

This kind of intervention in the lives of abandoned elders comes from a realisation that social interaction can protect older people's mental health. "There is an old gentleman from Iraq at the home," relates Huchu.

"On some rare occasions his relatives visit him. When some of his grandchildren came to see him some time back, they hugged and kissed him. But he did not remember them as his eyesight is deteriorating, he's suffering from memory loss. It's painful to see him trying to remember them, knowing that his mind is going and he can't do anything about it."

"That's why I have to do this," says Huchu. "Someone must do it."

Others like Zaineb see the effects of old age on their loved ones and are moved to help out the less fortunate.

"My grandfather suffers from Alzheimer's disease and it was very difficult," she relates. "We had help in the house, and during the later stages he moved to England where we have family. It's hard to see a man who is very strong and of a great status reduced to this state. You don't want it to happen to you and, if it does, you want someone to take care of you. That's the reason you should take care of others."

Caregivers advise contacting a facility to find out if they need volunteers. They invariably do.

Zaineb received her initial push from home. "My mother has always encouraged me to be active in such efforts," she explains. "But I wasn't very aware about such activities till I joined the AUS. There is a group on Facebook which I joined. I was invited for a meeting, and they started involving me more in their activities."

Rania also realised the plight of the elderly from home. Her maternal grandparents were in Iraq, while she grew up in New Zealand, "so I really didn't grow up knowing them." When she visited Dubai two years ago, she took time to meet her grandmother. "She has Alzheimer's disease, so she didn't really remember me," recounts Alani.

"We had people looking after her, and put her in hospital when necessary. That was when it struck me. Imagine things from their side; you have children, you look after them, and then they leave you when you are old… it's not right. One of the ladies who I visit at the old people's home keeps crying, saying that she has some problem with her eyes. The actual problem is she had nobody to talk to."

Zaineb is motivated by the situation at home too. "It's hard for me, I had my grandfather and grandmother living with us, they are both very strong personalities," she says.

"Now when I see my grandfather, he doesn't talk, doesn't recognise me… it hurts. They always guided me, advised while I was growing up. My grandfather was always very relaxed, we used to watch old movies with him. My grandmother would tell me stories, advise me on behaviour, and other social mores." One piece of advice most volunteers give would-be volunteers is to be prepared. Volunteering at a senior or elderly care home can involve many types of activities - playing games, reading, doing art and craft projects, singing songs, teaching a class, or just being friendly.

"In fact, the elders know our volunteers by their names and little quirks," smiles Ali. "They love making some of the volunteers perform our traditional Arabic dance, Al Yolla. They say, ‘We see ourselves in you; we become young again through you'."

Many of the elders ask after the volunteers' families. "They ask about children or pets that you have," says Huchu. "Sometimes I feel if volunteers were to take their children - or even pets, if they are allowed - it would give them a real sense of participation."

"In many cultures and societies elders are respected and revered," says Huchu. "To be a matriarch or patriarch of a family was something to aspire to. People were proud of their years. They became wise old women, or men."

"Generally I feel we are taking our elders for granted," says Rania. "You know how it is, you don't realise you have something until it's gone. Usually you have a family around you, so you don't really care. But you have to realise that these people had youth once, they had fun as well. It's sad that people don't care. I don't think it's a cultural thing. I feel our generation is losing touch with the elderly a bit."

Zaineb begs to differ: "I don't believe the present generation avoids interacting with the elders in their family. We are moving away from family ties to some extent but I don't think it's turned so alarming yet. I think the sense of duty is still there. I think it would depend on whether their parents treat them [the elders] properly. You learn by example after all."

She takes the example of the 20 student volunteers who regularly visit the elders during festivals or on special occasions, spend time with them and even take gifts for them.

Ali agrees: "I remember when I used to visit the elders at the Al Qasimi Hospital, Sharjah, when I was a student, there were quite a few of them," she recalls. What all of them feel is that a link should be created between the youth and elders. "I feel if you keep going to visit them and talk to them you will get in touch with your inner compassion," says Rania

As a volunteer, you may start off by just going through the motions but, Rania warns, "it really breaks your heart, and you reach the stage where you get emotional about it. You have to kind of force yourself to take that first step to actually connect with a person. It's hard for them as well, because they are kind of suspicious, why this sudden interest in me? But then once that is past they appreciate you so much that even a few minutes a week makes a world of difference to their lives."

Rania puts the issue in perspective: "I think what we need to do is just bond with the elders so that they get a sense of purpose, and we get the grounding that's so necessary [at this point in our lives]. I think parents should put that connection there [for us]. They should keep them close to us; I think that's how you appreciate them more."

‘They always want to go out'

Mariam Al Qatari, director, Sharjah Old People's Home, has 18 mothers and 17 fathers. That's how she considers the 35 wards under her care at the home. "I look upon them as my own parents, and try to give them the best I can," she smiles.

"That's what I tell the first-time volunteers who come here, and are overwhelmed by the situation. I tell them, ‘They are like your own mother and father. Treat them like you would your own parents."

The home is open to visitors every day. The elders - 18 women and 17 men - are all ready and waiting in their wheelchairs for somebody, anybody, to talk to them, show them some care.

"They have nurses and caregivers 24 hours to look after their needs," says Mariam. "But they need something more. They need the love and care of ‘strangers', the visitors who bring with them a new sense of bonding. That's what we sorely need."

Ever since student volunteers from the American University of Sharjah started visiting them, the elders are always waiting for occasions when they can get together with their ‘children'. "

They always want to call them over, or go over to the AUS to visit them!" says Mariam. "We do take them out, shopping or to the park, so that they can see what's happening outside their world. We don't want them to just sit here, waiting."

The need for more facilities such as transport exist, but what Mariam wants for her wards on a priority basis is more love and care from people willing to give it.

How to volunteer

There are Old People's Homes in Sharjah and Ajman which welcome volunteers to visit the residents. "We would welcome volunteers other than from our student faculty to join us in making the elders feel a little less lonely," says Aisha Ali, community services coordinator, AUS. "Since students are not always available, volunteers who can help out would make a great difference, especially during events or celebrations."

Those interested may contact Aisha Ali at the AUS on 06 515 5555. Sharjah Old People's Home: 06 558 9444; Ajman Old People's Home: 06 740 2332