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Positive Ageing and the Role of Public Policy in the United Arab Emirates

Countries around the world are employing various approaches to promote positive ageing in order to maintain healthy populations. These run regardless of whether inhabitants are predominantly older or younger. During the last three years, Covid-19 has added an extra burden to healthcare systems and population health. As a result, national economies are still recovering. Despite this situation, some countries were positively impacted; experiencing accelerations in health services and technologies for older adults.

When it comes to investing in healthy, active populations, things are easier said than done. This is due to the complex nature of longevity, either at a personal or societal level, and today, how the effects of Covid-19 put countries on different paths.

According to the UN World Population Prospects report, 16% of the world’s population will be aged 65 and above by 2050, representing a 10% increase from 2022. This means that there is a need to prepare for increases in lifespan. Globally, life expectancy has improved by 9 years since 1990, and in 2019 averages stood at 72.8 years (notably, due to Covid-19, population increases reduced by around 1% in 2021 to 71.0 years). Such increases in lifespan are largely occurring in countries with declining fertility rates and it is these nations that will need to plan to ensure their economies remain active and productive as their populations age.

Current systems, institutions, policies, and practices lack inclusive engagement, and do not consider ageing populations as positive resources and assets. This absence of positive recognition may lead to a future where the most vulnerable older adults, those that are unwell and lack wealth, are encumbered with further difficulties. Consequently, this could result in a less resourceful, less equitable society, particularly with the very old being viewed as disadvantageous, both socially and economically.

This situation could act as a significant lesson for countries with younger populations, as they have a window of opportunity to focus their efforts on wellness and illness prevention, while at the same time supporting their existing ageing population. Through investing in preventative health care and early interventions, to reap the benefits while their population’s lifespan extends, these countries will be able to add more healthy years to their inhabitants’ already extended lives.

Many cultures and societies embrace ageing. This is particularly the case in Eastern and Asian societies.  For instance, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), positive ageing is embedded in its Social Cohesion Strategy (see the UAE’s 2021 vision and its Centennial Plan 2071) which considers older adults as valuable resources; as respected and experienced voices of the community. In the UAE, life expectancy has risen from 77.3 in 2016 to 78.3 in 2019, however healthy life expectancy remains stable at 66.  Similarly to many other countries, the UAE suffers from age-related diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and arthritis.

In the UAE, which is considered a relatively young nation in terms of population constitution, policy-makers still regard ageing as a priority for social development programs. There is a particular emphasis on the ageing population’s health, quality of life, well-being and happiness. Although modernized lifestyles have reduced social connectivity, which is considered a mainstay of the UAE’s traditional culture, the government is implementing interventions to improve and sustain intergenerational relationships. This follows increases in nuclear families, which shifted caregiving for older adults from extended family households to smaller units of one or two generations living together.

The UAE’s Centennial 2071 Plan sets the goal to make the UAE ‘the best country in the world by 2071’. The date is appropriate as the country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2071. According to the Community Development Authority, Dubai has the highest percentage of centenarians in the UAE with 57 people aged 100. However, by 2071 these numbers will increase. The UAE consists of a diverse population of 200 nationalities. Due to recent government programs and regulatory changes such as the Golden Visa Program and long-term retiree residency visas attracting more people aged 60+, the UAE will experience demographic changes. In response, policy-makers will need to create an adaptive eco-system.

In 2016, the UAE established happiness and well-being agendas to encourage positive mindsets in society. It also embedded positivity, well-being and happiness programs in its core public administration and policy plans. In these, positive ageing was measured on a regular basis through well-being and quality of life assessments. It also established Seniors’ Happiness Centers to cater to the needs of an ageing population. One study suggests that optimism and positivity are psychological resources that can extend lifespan by 11 to 15%, pushing life expectancy to 85 years and above. Another study conducted in the USA found that those with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive outlooks.

The Emirate of Abu Dhabi recognized the importance of developing its own measures and conducting research on the happiness and quality of life of older adults. This research, consisting of around 72,034 respondents, focused on those aged 60 years and over (retirement age is 60 in Abu Dhabi). The findings showed that those that exercised regularly and consumed healthier food experienced positive psychological states and felt healthier. Moreover, those more socially engaged were happier, which is a finding that corresponds with other global studies. Positive ageing is a life-course approach. However, this will not happen by embodying behavioral and lifestyle changes alone but also through implementing better policy, and intervening in a population’s health at very early stages of their lives.

About the Author

Alyaa Al Mulla is the Founder of Longevity, a newly established public policy Think Tank in the United Arab Emirates. As well as this, she is a policy-maker specializes in wellbeing and longevity with extensive years of experience in public administration and policy. She was an Academic Visitor at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in 2022.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

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