BEIRUT—It was a leap “from the living room to the red carpet,” says Therese Geha, a 60-year-old housewife describing how her life has changed after joining University for Seniors, a lifelong-learning initiative at the American University of Beirut for people age 50 and over.
Geha was among 16 university colleagues and amateur painters between the ages of 52 and 81 who participated in the Qatar International Art Festival in October. The festival gave them a chance to exhibit and sell their work.
Geha’s painting class was offered via Zoom. After joining it, she said, “I discovered that I had a dormant talent. I would look at the painting and say to myself, ‘Is it me who did it?’ Joining the University for Seniors was a blessing.”
“I have dedicated my life to raising my family. Now that the children have grown up and left, I can do things for myself.” A mother of two, Geha did not continue her education after high school.
“I have dedicated my life to raising my family. Now that the children have grown up and left, I can do things for myself.”Therese Geha
A 60-year-old housewife
AUB’s University for Seniors programme is the first of its kind in Lebanon and the region. It has been a remarkable success since it was launched in 2010, according to Mira Zaatari, the programme’s assistant manager.
“The programme grew way beyond our expectations,” Zaatari told Al-Fanar Media. “Senior citizens are very enthusiastic about it, and they are eager to learn and interact.”
Some of the programme’s participants went to university and had careers, while others never had the chance to complete their education, Zaatari added. “We have members who are 90 years old and still very active. This created a constructive inter-generational environment and social fusion.”
A Community for Seniors
The programme offers two terms per year with different curricula. Its lectures and mini-courses cover an array of subjects, such as health, politics, music, art, mathematics, economics, languages, literature, wellness and meditation. The initiative has English and Arabic book clubs and offers educational trips inside and outside Lebanon.
For a nominal fee of 400,000 Lebanese pounds per term, the equivalent of less than $20 after the pound’s devaluation, participants have the chance to learn new things and remain active and engaged socially and intellectually. (See a related article, “Students Sue 2 Lebanese Universities Over Tuition Hike Amid Crisis”.)
The programme is entirely led by volunteers, including AUB students, professors and doctors from the university hospital who dedicate their time to give lectures and classes in the afternoon.
“The goal of the programme is to have a community for seniors, most of whom are retirees,” Zaatari said. “They can stay engaged physically and mentally. Some never had the chance to join AUB in the past and they feel proud about it now.”
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, classes and lectures shifted online, prompting the participants to develop modern technology skills.
Going online also allowed participants from outside Lebanon to enroll. The courses now have mature students from Greece, Nigeria, Qatar, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
A Positive Atmosphere
For Doha Slim, 72, a retired school director and grandmother of two, joining the University for Seniors was a “salvation.”
“When I neared retirement, I started exploring ways to fill my time in a constructive manner. I just could not stay idle after 44 years of a fulfilling career,” Slim said.
“My experience at the University for Seniors exceeded all expectations. I acquired knowledge about topics that I did not really care about in the past, such as economics. But what I appreciate most is the positive atmosphere and making new friends.”
Before the pandemic, the senior students enjoyed campus life. They would walk around the campus and meet new people before going to class, a daily exercise that had a positive impact on their psychological health.
“When I neared retirement, I started exploring ways to fill my time in a constructive manner. I just could not stay idle after 44 years of a fulfilling career.”Doha Slim
A retired school director and grandmother of two
Slim disputes the stereotype of the elderly as a burden on society.
“Older adults can be very active and dynamic, and they have a lot of experience and knowledge to share,” she said. “I am a student and at the same time, because of my previous experience in education, I was part of the curriculum committee that helped devise the university programmes.”
A Model for Other Countries
Jacques Ekmekji, a 76-year-old retired engineer, is back at the American University of Beirut 50 years after graduating. He enrolled in the University for Seniors two years ago at his daughter’s advice.
“It is a good and constructive way to fill a gap after retirement,” Ekmekji said. “It enlightened me about new topics which we usually don’t address in the engineering business, such as health, meditation, well-being, music and art.”
“The University for Seniors is a positive example of ageing that should be copied in other countries of the region,” he added. “Everyone is going to be a senior one day. It is good to know that there is something that would keep you going body and soul.”
However, Ekmekji has noted a gender imbalance among the programme’s participants.
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“The majority are women,” he said. “We have to change the impression that it is just for senior women. Men should be encouraged to join as well.”
For Geha, online classes and lectures helped her overcome the isolation and stress of the coronavirus lockdown. (See a related article, “Lebanese University Campuses Gradually Return to Life”.)
“It kept me busy in a useful and beneficial way. It boosted my self- confidence and self-esteem,” she said. “Besides, I have gained a new family. It is a full package that thrust me out of the living room.”