During the past few decades, the number and proportion of older Lebanese individuals has been rising steadily. It is estimated that by the year 2050, the proportion of people aged 65 years and over will approach 20 percent, the highest among its Arab neighbouring countries.
In general, older people have more free time than their younger counterparts and possess an incredible amount of wisdom, as well as life and professional experiences, that they are eager to share. The University for Seniors programme at the American University of Beirut (AUB) was developed in response to this, providing an opportunity to redefine and defy the negative stereotypes associated with the ageing process in Lebanon and greater the region. I spoke with Dr. Cynthia Myntti, Director of the AUB Neighbourhood Initiative, and Dr. Abla Mehio Sibai, Professor of Public Health and an expert on aging, about AUB University for Seniors.
What is it the University for Seniors (UfS)?
The University for Seniors is a pioneering programme, initiated in 2010. It addresses the aspirations of many older adults to remain intellectually challenged and socially connected. The programme aims to create a new and positive image of aging in Beirut, Lebanon and the Middle East: one that offers visible proof that engaged aging is possible in the Arab world, and that it contributes to healthy and successful aging.
The programme offers lecturers, study groups, educational travel programmes, campus life and intergenerational activities, in addition to social and cultural events over two terms per year. The programme is open to anyone 50 years and older.
How did the programme come about?
Public health studies have shown that meaningful social engagement has a positive effect on the physical and psychological health of older adults. In 2007, the AUB Neighborhood Initiative learned from interviews with residents of Ras Beirut that prospects for older residents are largely lacking, with few occasions to leave their homes, not enough mental stimulation, and virtually no opportunities to give back to their communities. In response, Cynthia Myntti and Abla Sibai joined forces to create an educational and cultural programme at AUB designed with and for older adults.
How does it work?
Adult education programmes typically cater to adults seeking to improve their careers with additional skills and certificates. In contrast, learning in the University for Seniors is sought for pleasure. The programme rests on three unique principles:
- Peer-learning: seniors learn from one another rather than from a paid professional instructor;
- Community building: seniors join a community rather than paying for one-off activities; and
- Intergenerational connections: seniors have multiple opportunities to connect with AUB faculty and students.
Over the years, the programme has developed beyond expectations and has grown exponentially: from 50 enrolled members in three courses offered in 2010 to this term with 21 courses, 30 lectures, and 5 trips within Lebanon and abroad. The UfS currently has over 260 enrolled members and close to 1,600 subscribers on its mailing list.
What impact has this had on the University itself? The other students?
The University for Seniors has had an impact on AUB in a number of ways, such as: engaging alumni and attracting people from outside the AUB community; creating good will and great publicity for the University (extensive media coverage); offering AUB the opportunity to pioneer lifelong learning in Lebanon and the Middle East; changing the concept of learning to include all ages; inspiring younger people, both faculty and regular students, with the image of active, curious older people who they see on campus and in classes; creating an opportunity for AUB students to give back to their community by volunteering in classes to UfS members, mainly on social media; and offering AUB students the chance to welcome their own parents, aunts, uncles and even grandparents to campus as learners like them.
A major challenge is the labor intensity required to organize the term offerings. In regular universities, courses mostly remain the same and the students change. In the University for Seniors, most of the “students” remain the same (new members do join), but the courses change. Courses and lectures are run by volunteers, so the UfS always needs more interested persons to give courses and lectures. To keep offerings new and fresh, all leads are pursued.
Another challenge relates to finances. The UfS does not see itself as a programme for elites, so every effort is made to keep membership fees affordable and to attract members of different backgrounds from all over Lebanon.
Words such as ‘your programme is life changing;’ or the ‘UfS has become our reason for being’ are a testament to the programme’s value in the lives of its members and its success. Members take real pleasure at being on campus, rubbing shoulders with AUB’s ‘regular’ students and faculty, and being part of the AUB learning community. Members participate in the programme’s governance and strategic planning (the steering committee, Curriculum Committee and Social Committee), and some act as lecturers and study group leaders. Everyone has something to share in the University for Seniors; members feel that their experience and wisdom are valued and that they still can achieve new things.
Beirut has few places where people of different backgrounds meet, but the UfS has created such a place, becoming a strong and diverse community. Psychologists and geriatricians are even prescribing UfS membership for their patients!
What advice do you have for others thinking of putting in place something similar at their schools?
- In a world that is aging, recognize the remarkable resource that are older people and the power of the older a University for Seniors-like programme within your university and in the community at large.
- Embark on a feasibility study to identify the target population and its needs to tailor the programme accordingly.
- Start with an experimental phase to try out different modalities and elicit feedback from members about what is working and what is not working.
What’s next for the programme?
The University for Seniors is now one of AUB’s premier community outreach programmes. In the coming years, it intends to:
- Expand its reach to serve a wider community
- Maintain its affordable status with low membership fees and the establishment of a scholarship fund
- Document the effect of the programme on individual members’ health and well-being
- To position the programme as the platform for change in ageing-related issue.