What is life like for elderly Emirati people?
Updated on 03 October 2017

The elderly Emirati are the heads of our households. For many Emirati families, there is a chair or space on a carpet we are used to finding an elder member of the family; a grandfather or grandmother. Out of habit they relax in that location and it becomes the axis to which the family gravitates towards, no matter how far they wonder. The elderly are always to be respected, listened to and made to feel they are accompanied in this life and not alone. They are a vast source of traditional knowledge. How are we in 2017 supposed to know how to keep cool if the electricity goes out, except from talking to them? How do we feed a family of six on five dirhams at the end of the month without their practical advice from experience?  How do we understand what are priorities, except from those who lived without much of what we have today? Therefore, some of their children and spouses will either stay living in their parents’ house or bring them to one of theirs. Either way they are the crown jewel of the house; always attended to and beloved.

I will never forget the funniest morning I ever had in Al Ain. My elderly relatives were nearly ninety years old when they passed on, now enjoying their view of the hereafter, but a few years ago, it was quite a different story. Busy and loud, our elderly relatives were the soul of our family. One morning I was sitting in the main majlis building, awaiting family members as they woke.  A car came through the gate and out stepped our grandfathers older brother, who had come from a few streets away, driven by his driver. In his unique voice that seemed to crackle with happiness no matter the subject, he asked me to get his brother quickly. I offered him coffee as is tradition, but no, he only wanted his brother. Off I went to the main house, down to the special, private apartment grandfather enjoyed at the end of the balcony. I could hear his voice reciting poetry; a constant from his lips during his happy mornings but water was pouring out of his room.

In local Arabic mixed with Yasi – the language of the tribe, I told grandfather his brother was waiting for him. Not amused his recitation was interrupted, he said he would go later. While trying to be diplomatic, I explained I had been asked to hurry, so perhaps it was urgent. The source of the flood was a kandoora, the long white national dress of men, had been rinsing in a sink with the faucet left on but the fabric had covered the drain. There was no doubt this was an attempt to take care of his daily tasks himself. With the sink cleared and a maid on her way, I helped him over the water but again he got distracted with something in the main house. Off I ran to alert his brother, they would be together shortly, but I found him asleep snoring in the majlis. Assuming grandfather was on his way, I went to our maternal grandmother’s apartment, who isn’t related to my grandfather, and out of modesty lives on the opposite side of the main house. There she was sitting wondering about her lost camels. I assured her, the camels were no longer lost. They had not been lost for roughly seventy years. Sometimes we needed a driver to call in saying the camels were indeed in their pens, while he was carrying out errands with no connection whatsoever to the camels. Once she was comfortable, I concluded my circle, by going back to the majlis inside the house to get some tea, only to find grandfather napping on the couch, in the completely wrong section of the compound than where his sleeping brother lay. I sat down at his feet thinking, this was a crazy morning, but perfect.

Later in the day, lunch would be served to them, and at least one man from the family would come home from work to eat with grandfather. On a rare day that did not happen, the late afternoon was never as content as it should feel. The elderly should be cared for, but in a respectful way so they still feel as head of the family. Decisions are deferred to them about many subjects. They are to be greeted first by visitors. They are our beloved kings and queens of the compounds you see scattered across the towns and cities.

With thanks to Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding. Call 04-3536666 or visit

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