Riyadh Image Credit: Agency

Senior citizens in Saudi Arabia and possibly in other GCC countries cannot be blamed for feeling helpless and alone in the face of new technology, the coronavirus impact, and just about everything else that has happened in the last few years. With human contact becoming less and less frequent and automation in communication is on the rise, seniors today can be forgiven for believing the world is slipping past them.

Statistics released by the Saudi government’s Department of Statistics report that the number of elderly people in the Kingdom had crossed one million, a figure that comprises just five per cent of the total population. A minority among a population that boasts something like 70 per cent under the age of thirty adds to the isolation of the dwindling number of seniors and their comrades through age, ill health or death. Look around you and chances are that you’d be lucky to spot a senior among the bustling crowd.

While most families dutifully absorb their elderly within the confines of their homes, that is not enough to cater to the needs and whims of these people as most are not ready to give up and become unproductive. And until recently, the laws were unclear on their protection.

So it came as welcome news for all of them when the Saudi Council of Ministers under King Salman of Saudi Arabia passed a law for the protection of the rights of the elderly people and their care. The law is considered as an important breakthrough of the initiative of protecting and elevating the status of the elderly and ensuring their security and safety. There are also provisions in the law to ensure that their rights and care and well defined and understood.

Unfortunately, in the past, some families tiring of taking care of an ailing elderly simply dropped him or her off in a charity-run shelter for seniors. Well, no more. The new laws ensure their care through the family and the community. There are also provisions in the law to protect the physical and psychological rights of elderly people. The law makes it clear that, “it is not permitted to send an elderly man or woman to a shelter or care facility without their consent. The elderly people have the right to live with their families, who in turn must respond to their needs in dignity.”

Article 27 of the Basic Law preserves the rights of the elderly as it states: “The state guarantees the right of the citizen and his family, in the event of emergency, disease, disability, and old age, support the social security system and encourages institutions and individuals to contribute to charitable work.”

There are also added provisions for promoting volunteer activities and offering seniors special facilities in public and commercial centers including mosques. The Saudi Shoura Council tasked the private sector to foster a healthy and enjoyable environment for older people by opening community centers and social clubs and encouraging the participation of these lonely individuals who had previously suffered silently and primarily in isolation.

Several other initiatives by various organs of the government have also kicked in. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development provides free assistance to the elderly, while the Elderly Rights and Care System Project exempts them from paying any charges. Other steps are taken to help the seniors include setting up Waqar, a non-profit association, which seeks to support the elderly, protect their rights, and help in their care. The Ministry of Health also launched services dedicated to the elderly, apart from the Taqdeer service launched by the Ministerial Agency of Civil Affairs and the Elderly.

These are all welcome changes to the ears of our seniors who for some time have felt like shadows in the background among a young and energetic population. But lest we not be fooled, many of our seniors still maintain the vigour and vitality to continue on with a purpose in life and not just be shelved in some corner.

Ahmed, a retired teacher well into his seventies says that “we are not dead yet and society should not treat us as such. As a matter of fact, the young can learn from us. Our elderly comrades have had no centers to gather or mingle in and share in ideas, memories, or simply to have a purpose in getting up every day. These new initiatives should help go a long way in easing our silent suffering.”

Indeed, I hasten to surmise that most if not all seniors would welcome the recent steps taken on their behalf by the government, steps that give more meaning and purpose to their once colourful lives. They are a priority and we should not forget that one day we would be hanging about in the same tier.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena