Sabria S. Jawhar
Published — Monday 11 February 2013
Last update 11 February 2013 4:58 am
The other day a young woman took her grandfather to a mental hospital because he was unresponsive and didn’t seem to know his family.
Hospital personnel determined the 70-year-old man was not mentally ill but suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. A mental institution was no place for a person with Alzheimer’s and the admitting doctors refused to take him because the facility was ill-equipped to handle his illness. The daughter disappeared, but the hospital referred the man to another medical facility, which also refused to admit for the same reasons.
It appears that care for this poor man will not come soon. He was taken to a police station where he was fed and apparently given shelter.
Now is this any way to treat our elders?
No, of course not. But Saudi Arabia’s health care has not kept pace with the rapidly changing face of Saudi society. Our public services, or should I say lack of public services, are predicated on the family. Saudi families have long prided themselves on taking care of the elderly and infirm. When extended family members find themselves in trouble, it wasn’t uncommon for relatives to take them in.
Yet we as a society are rapidly losing these fundamental characteristics once found in families. Many families are now fractured. Divorce, unemployment, domestic abuse, our excessive reliance on social media, satellite television and video games have made Saudi families more isolated than ever while at the same time leaving less time to care for family members who need help the most.
Saudis have not caught on to the new family dynamic. As a consequence the government is not prepared to deal with families that are unwilling or unable to care for the elderly and the sick in their own home.
Granted, the Saudi population of people over the age of 64 is just 3 percent, but the life expectancy of the average Saudi man is 72.4 years old and for woman 76.5 years old. This is a dramatic increase from the average life expectancy of 50 in 1974. We have also seen an increase in the elderly population jump 44.5 percent in 2004 from 1992. By 2030, we can expect an 2.5 million Saudis over the age of 65 with a life expectancy of about 80 years, according to King Saud University.
The simple facts are the elderly will be a burden on families as their parents and grandparents live longer but also have more health issues.
It is the duty and blessing of every Muslim to care for their parents and Islam stresses family support for the old, but changes in societal behavior have raised the issue that many families no longer have the wherewithal to provide around-the-clock care for a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s or is bed-ridden with other afflictions. The medical care for the old is too complex, but is expected to be carried out by family members without any significant training.
But there is no place to go for help. Unlike in other countries, Saudi Arabia has no comprehensive health care facilities that can take in the elderly. Convalescent hospitals for the elderly, nursing homes and long-term geriatric care facilities are few.
There are only 10 social centers serving less than 2,000 elderly people in the entire country, according to KSU’s 2008 study. Ninety percent of those residents have no families and no other shelter.
Accurate data is hard to come by to determine whether the lot of an old person’s life has improved in the five years since the study was conducted.
What we do know is that the mental hospital staff did not know where to send the 70-year-old Alzheimer’s victim. The idea that a police station to house and feed the old fellow was the only alternative indicates that our government agencies have not responded to this growing necessity to provide the proper care. We can expect more examples of abandoned old people as the burden becomes too great for Saudi families.