Oman’s elderly population is increasing. But many of our senior citizens struggle in their twilight years – ignored by society, abandoned by their families, and worse, even suffer abuse. Team Y reports on why we need a reality check on how we treat our loved ones later in life.
* Images for illustrative purposes only.
What age we are often determines our standing in society, whether we like it or not.
Getting old shouldn’t mean being lonely or abandoned yet that is the reality facing so many of our senior citizens.
The sad fact is that many of our old people face their final years struggling to survive having been rendered ‘surplus to requirements’ by society or worse, by their families.
Take Ret. Brig. Gen. Fahad bin Ahmad al Jenaibi. The retired army general considers himself a lucky man despite misfortune, and rejection from his own family.
On the walls of his home in Barka hang family photos of his two children – twins, he proudly says – and his beloved wife.
He enthusiastically shows us around his humble abode, describing the circumstances behind the now fungus-ridden photos.
Pointing at one image which his friend clicked in 1965, he says: “These are my two children on their fourth birthday.
“It was a very nice day. We didn’t have money to make a cake so we had bread instead and used candles that we would use to light up the room when the electricity went,” laughs the 85-year-old Omani.
He then handles another photo – one in which the family takes a trip to the Al Amerat wadi.
“This was in 1972,” he tells our translator, before adding: “I couldn’t stand being away from my family. So, on that day, I took the call to quit the army and become more responsible as a father and husband.”
Tears roll down his cheeks as he looks at the photos, reminiscing. He lost his wife to breast cancer in 1995 and since became reliant on his children.
But that didn’t last long, as he was asked to leave his house, was taken away from his home town of Amerat, and then abandoned at the age of 81.
Today, Ret. Brig. Gen. Fahad lives in a mud house in a hamlet in Barka alone and wholly dependent on a handful of expats from the souk and the imam of a nearby mosque. These people provide him with food daily and collect RO35 every month for the upkeep of his home.
And it’s not just the retired army general who lives under such conditions. More elderly people in Oman are slowly being abandoned by their kin; being confined within their own homes or left to fend for themselves.
It’s a state of affairs that one official from the Ministry of Social Development (MOSD), Ahmed al Mahrooqi calls “heartless”.
While the topic is now gaining traction as a controversial news item, with Y’s sister company Al Wisal exposing another angle – on how elderly Omanis are being mistreated in homes and not given proper medication – there’s more pressure from the ministry to understand how many people are affected.
The answer to that, says Madiha al Balushi, a social worker and statistician for the Electronic Census for Population, Housing and Establishments 2020 – E-Census – is “one that needs careful analysis before publishing”.
In an exclusive interview with Y, she says “It’s impossible to put down numbers on how many elderlies have been abandoned. In fact, I do know that it’s something that’s being considered by the Ministry of Social Development to officiate.
“But, there are several roadblocks that will come along its way – the first being the lack of a tracking system to see whether the parents are actually away from their kids by their own will or by force.
“That can only be put into perspective if society comes together and forms a committee to report on such heinous acts against humanity, and more sadly, their own parents.
She then recalls an incident from 2011, when one parent was abandoned on the streets of Qarn al Alam – a small pass-by for travellers from Muscat to Salalah – where she was helped by truck drivers and the shopkeeper at the petrol station in the town.
“This was one of the more widely-publicised incidents that showed us how family culture and life was changing. Abandoning the elderly can be for many reasons, but here in Oman, we rarely come across such cases.
“But since about the early 2000s, I’ve been getting reports of such acts. It’s upsetting to see, and it must be stopped.
Madiha cannot confirm whether the abandoned mother from Qarn al Alam found her way back home or not but does reveal that there is a substantial number of similar cases now being reported, as the number of Oman’s elderly increases.
By late 2018 nearly 253,725 residents in Oman were above the age of 55. What’s more staggering is that, as Oman’s healthcare and social welfare systems improve, more than 75,000 more will be added to the mix by 2025.
According to the MOSD, by 2050, the elderly will form nearly 20.5 per cent of the total population of Oman – a near 14.6 per cent increase from the current number.
It’s a trend that Ahmed from the MOSD finds reassuring for the nation but worrying when coupled with the issue of abandonment and healthcare provision.
Ahmed, a young Omani, is also a volunteer at the Sultan Qaboos Hospital. He says: “We want to see more people live longer lives in Oman and, to an extent, we are gearing up for these changes in almost all regards except in providing adequate shelter for the elderly.
“It’s something that we are working towards – we cannot lie. Our current facility runs quite full on most occasions and expansion is something the ministry may be considering but that’s not something that I can reveal or confirm.”
Our interview with Ahmed raises several red flags, as we learn that the only social care home for the elderly remains in Rustaq, where the last known statistics were published in 2015.
As per MOSD figures, the care facility was home to only 31 individuals – of which 25 were males and six were females – who had no relatives to rely on. The care home also aims to offer social, psychological, health and recreational care services to the ‘guests’.
Sadly for several of these guests, there’s no returning back to a conventional life.
All our efforts to contact the care home are in vain.
Even Ahmed rebuffs our request for an interview with the elderly, citing privacy concerns. He also avoids our questions on whether there’s an increase in Omanis opting to have elderly parents reside in the care home and if the home is at full capacity.
But, Aisha al Barwani, a social worker, psychologist, and life coach who frequents homes that request help has much to say about these changing trends.
She explains: “The term ‘Westernisation’ is perhaps the wrong term that classifies this act but it is sadly the one that is being used today. While this can mean adopting new cultures – and this cruel act certainly fits the bill – there’s a lot at play here when we look at things.
“One of the greatest reasons for this is the adoption of nuclear families (a couple and their dependent children, regarded as a basic social unit), which leaves no space for the elderly.
“Moreover, with both the husband and the wife taking up the roles of breadwinners in their search for economic stability, family values and life has to take a backseat.
“Up to an extent, this leaves a little bit of room for Omani mothers.
“But for fathers, it’s a whole different story. In my town in Muttrah, I remember one Omani father who ran away from home because he was being mistreated and abused by his son. He was reportedly termed ‘useless’ by his own child.
“He sought refuge in our home for a few days before one of the banks in Oman hired him as a security guard and provided him with accommodation.
“He died two years later from heatstroke while on duty. There’s just no time to look after your own parents even if they’re with you,” a visibly-upset Aisha reveals.
Aisha has a point. As we investigate further, we learn that many Omanis refuse to abandon their parents for fear of tarnishing their reputation in public but instead opt to have hired help take care of their parents – often in small secluded rooms and away from the main rooms.
The Ihsaan Association is one of the few non-profit organisations that offer help to the elderly in need of everything from housing to medical equipment – all for free.
While this aims to reduce the burden of an aged adult on their children, it’s an organisation created to help the aged feel at home… and wanted.
However, our meeting with the head of the Ihsaan Association, Jokha al Farsi, leads to some shocking and sombre revelations.
The first among these is the plea of one visually-impaired father who had complained of mistreatment by his domestic staff but this had not been heeded by his sons. The staff would constantly torture the man by pouring scalding hot tea down his throat.
A few months later, however, his throat was completely impaired and dark bruises were found on his wrinkled body.
But, in the end, as per Jokha, it was a hidden camera that revealed the disturbing footage of the abuse. The video further revealed how hot tea was forced down his throat every single day.
She then adds that more cases of abuse are being uncovered in the Sultanate.
“Somehow, today, people do not have time to spend with their parents. And when they do, they do not know how to take good care of them,” she says, stressing how her organisation provides free courses on caring for an elderly relative.
Sharing some tips with Y, she points out: “The rooms (of the elderly parents) should be located in the middle of the house, with a window and a television. We need to install CCTV cameras to check on them and view how they are being treated.
The Ihsaan Association has gone as far as demonstrating a ‘perfect room’ in their headquarters in Mabelah – translated from ‘Aunt Naseera Room’ – in a bid to raise awareness.
The association also has two ambulances, which are driven by licensed volunteers, and is providing free services to more than 500 elderly patients across Muscat and its surrounding areas every year.
It’s an effort that the government of Oman is also extensively undertaking, albeit with discretion.
So, aside from home care, officials aim to instill in the younger generation a sense of respect towards the elderly, through school lessons and other social studies.
During our interview, Aisha al Barwani pointedly says: “The family abides by the orders and advice of their parents – that’s how it must be. Give them the leading role in your family and watch the respect within your social and living circle grow.”
As per a United Nations’ resolution, the country also commemorates the ‘International Day of Older Persons’ annually.
In view of this, the MOSD holds a celebration that covers several subjects, including ‘inauguration of new enterprises in the field of elderly care, studies and research in the field of elderly care to develop the provided services, media aspects on the central and local levels, honoring the distinguished elderly who have given a lot to the community and have prominent role in the society, honoring the units of distinguished services by the competent authorities and honoring some individuals interested in providing services to the elderly’.
Whether this is why organisations such as the Ihsaan Association and other private groups are looking after elderly people is not known but some people are going that extra mile – by taking in the parents of others.
One example of this is Mubashir and Salwa al Harthy, who is introduced to us by our guide in Barka. The couple wed in an arranged marriage six years ago. While neither had known the other before the wedding, they had one thing in common: they were both orphans.
Mubashir says: “As kids, we had never found ourselves lacking anything. The people around us were kind enough to let us grow and follow our dreams but as we embarked on family life, we realised that having children wouldn’t complete our family but having parents would.
“It sounded silly to us and we got into a lot of trouble with our uncles and aunts for raising this.
“Eventually, however, we spoke about it and eventually took in our mother – whose name is also, coincidentally, Salwa.”
Salwa, who turns 72 this May, came to the family in 2017 and has been with it ever since. Today, she goes shopping, and goes out to movies and restaurants with her new ‘children’. However, she is shy, and refrains from an interview with us.
It’s a joyful story when compared with many of the others we come across during our investigation. It’s a beacon of hope in what is otherwise an ever-worrying situation.
But we are still haunted by Ret. Brig. Gen. Fahad’s last words to us before we leave him on a cold Saturday morning.
He holds our hand and says with tears in his eyes: “Always love your parents. Always,” before our guide and translator slowly tugs him away and seats him on his straw cot.
We later learn he has run away from his home in Barka and cannot
His strong piercing eyes, which reflected a full and once happy life, will always be in our thoughts.