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Understanding Ageing Perceptions in the MENA Region: The Role of the MENARAH Network

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is undergoing significant demographic changes, with a rapidly growing older population. However, cultural norms, perceptions, and the practical application of care for older individuals in the region often need to be improved, resulting in limited opportunities for social engagement, increased vulnerability, and a lack of autonomy. In this blog post, we reflect on a recent article drawing on some of the efforts of the MENARAH Network in addressing these challenges. By shedding light on the cultural norms surrounding ageing, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the intersectionality of gender in ageing perceptions, the MENARAH Network aims to redefine the narrative of ageing in the MENA region.

Cultural norms surrounding ageing in the MENA region are deeply rooted in religious codes, emphasising intergenerational care and duty roles. These norms place the responsibility for the protection and comfort of older individuals on younger generations, reflecting a theoretical framework of obligations, sacrifices, and respect. However, while older people are treasured and deserve respect in theory, practical applications of respect and protection often need to be revised. The limited evidence suggests that such ‘respect’ lacks a mechanism for meaningful exchange that acknowledges older individuals’ autonomy and actual needs. Consequently, social isolation and restricted social participation opportunities are prevalent among older people in the region.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated older people’s challenges in the MENA region. Reliance on family support and eliminating pre-pandemic social engagement opportunities have led to rapid physiological and psychological deterioration among older individuals. Unfortunately, these effects may be irreversible for many of the most senior groups aged 80 or above. The pandemic has highlighted the need for comprehensive support systems and increased awareness of older people’s unique vulnerabilities and needs.

The Intersectionality of Gender in Ageing Perceptions (Approximately 300 words)

Gender plays a significant role in shaping ageing perceptions in the MENA region. Women tend to live longer, often alone for extended periods, and experience a higher disease burden. However, the cultural narrative surrounding respect for older people tends to present women as weak and needing support, neglecting their autonomy and individual needs. Expectations and experiences of ageing differ between men and women, resulting in distinct challenges and implications for older individuals. It is crucial to include gender in the conceptualisation of ageing to address the disparities and advocate for the rights and agency of older women.

The MENARAH Network is at the forefront of efforts to redefine ageing in the MENA region. The network aims to challenge the prevailing dependency paradigm and empower older individuals through research, policy engagement, and advocacy. By conducting rigorous research, the network generates evidence to inform policy decisions and promote the well-being and rights of older people.

The network also works towards raising awareness about the unique challenges older individuals face in the region, focusing on gender disparities. By highlighting the intersectionality of gender and ageing, the MENARAH Network aims to dismantle stereotypes and promote gender equity in ageing-related policies and practices.

Moreover, the MENARAH Network recognises the importance of providing older people with platforms to express their voices and exercise autonomy. By involving older individuals in research and policy discussions, the network ensures that their perspectives are heard and their rights are respected.

As the MENA region undergoes significant demographic and societal changes, redefining the narrative of ageing becomes crucial. The efforts of the MENARAH Network in challenging existing perceptions, advocating for policy changes, and empowering older individuals are pivotal in creating a society that respects the rights and agency of older people. By addressing the cultural norms surrounding ageing, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the intersectionality of gender, the network aims to foster inclusive and supportive communities for older individuals in the MENA region. As the region navigates this transformative period, it is essential to prioritise research, policy engagement, and advocacy efforts to ensure that older people can age with dignity, autonomy, and well-being.

Recommendations for Policy and Practice in the MENA Region

1. Develop Comprehensive Social Protection Systems: Governments in the MENA region should prioritise the development of comprehensive social protection systems that address the unique needs of older individuals. This includes implementing adequate pension schemes, healthcare coverage, and support for long-term care services. These systems should be inclusive, gender-sensitive, and accessible to all older people, regardless of socioeconomic status.

2. Strengthen Legal Frameworks: Governments should enact and enforce laws that protect the rights of older individuals and prevent elder abuse. This includes legislation against financial exploitation, neglect, and other forms of mistreatment. Legal frameworks should also ensure older people’s autonomy and decision-making capacity, allowing them to make choices regarding their healthcare, finances, and living arrangements.

3. Promote Age-Friendly Environments: Efforts should be made to create age-friendly environments that enable older people to participate actively in society. This involves improving accessibility in public spaces, transportation, and housing and promoting opportunities for social engagement and lifelong learning. Age-friendly cities and communities should be designed with the active involvement of older individuals to ensure their needs and preferences are considered.

4. Foster Intergenerational Exchange and Support: Encouraging intergenerational exchange and support can enhance the well-being of older people and challenge ageist stereotypes. Intergenerational programs, such as mentoring initiatives and shared living arrangements, can facilitate meaningful connections and mutual support between different age groups. Policymakers, community organisations, and educational institutions should promote and support these programs.

5. Increase Awareness and Education: Promoting awareness and education about ageing issues is essential to challenge misconceptions and stereotypes. Educational curricula should include age-appropriate content that fosters positive attitudes towards ageing and promotes intergenerational understanding. Public campaigns should also raise awareness about older individuals’ rights, needs, and contributions.

6. Invest in Research and Data Collection: Governments and organisations should prioritise research on ageing to inform evidence-based policies and practices. This includes conducting studies on the socio-economic conditions, health, and well-being of older people in the region. Data collection should be disaggregated by gender to identify specific challenges older women face and ensure targeted interventions.

7. Strengthen Collaboration and Partnerships: Collaboration between governments, civil society organisations, academia, and international agencies is vital to address the complex challenges of ageing. Partnerships should be fostered to share knowledge, resources, and best practices in promoting the rights and well-being of older individuals. The MENARAH Network should continue to play a central role in facilitating regional collaboration and knowledge exchange.

By implementing these recommendations, policymakers and practitioners in the MENA region can create a more inclusive and supportive environment for older individuals. It is crucial to challenge ageist perceptions, promote gender equity, and empower older people to age with dignity, autonomy, and well-being. The efforts of the MENARAH Network are instrumental in driving positive change and redefining the narrative of ageing in the region. With a concerted focus on policy, practice, and research, the MENA region can harness the potential of its ageing population and build a society that values and respects older individuals.

Reference: Hussein, S. (2023). Reflections on the Intersectionality of Gender and Ageing in the Middle East. Journal of the British Academy, 11(s2), 55-70. https://doi.org/10.5871/jba/011s2.055 

Founder and Director
Shereen Husseinis a Health and Social Care Policy professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), United Kingdom.
Shereen Founded the MENARAH Network in 2019, through an initial grant from the Global Challenge Research Fund, UKRI. She is a medical demographer with expertise in ageing, family dynamics, migration and long-term care systems. Shereen regularly collaborates with the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank in policy and research focused on ageing in the Middle East and North Africa Region.
Shereen received her undergraduate degree in statistics and a postgraduate degree in computer science at Cairo University. She completed an MSc in medical demography at the London School of Hygiene and a PhD in quantitative demography and population studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science, United Kingdom.