ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Lebanon’s Own Shangri-la

A haven for the elderly in Lebanon celebrates joie de vivre.

Is it possible that Shangri-la has a twin in Lebanon? Can the sages that walk its paths be simple widows and widowers who were once poor and lonely?

Hidden from anxieties that continue to torment Lebanon even now in its postwar years, the Foyer des Têtes Blanches – the home of those with white hair – offers a haven for the elderly.

This Shangri-la was built by a woman whose ideal is simple, “If I think I deserve first class, then so do others.” Agnes Semaan says this with a smile underlined with determination.

In a country where homes for the elderly are few, often substandard or so expensive that only the rich can reside in them, this foyer, or home, is remarkable – it would be so in any western country.

The smell of lunch may be inviting, but long before you break bread the sight of fresh flowers catches your interest. Mrs. Semaan’s philosophy is capsulized in the foyer’s motto, “the flower before the bread.” Life, especially for the elderly, should be more than food and lodging. They should have dignity, respect and joie de vivre, the joy of living.

Involvement is another ingredient in the success of the foyer. The residents make the menu themselves. They poll one another for suggestions, their likes and dislikes. Some help tend the flower gardens. Many do their personal laundry. All enjoy being active and helpful.

The foyer strives to avoid that institutional look. The kitchen could be yours at home. Even the wash machines are house rather than industrial size.

No plastic is another guideline.

“True, cups get broken,” Mrs. Semaan says pointing to a pretty coffee mug on a resident’s bedside table. “But it’s better than using plastic.”

“If pots weren’t broken, who would give work to the potter?” says the Arabic proverb.

At the foyer there is work and fun for everyone who wants to join – old age has no frontiers. Even the breathtaking view of the valley, river and woods agree.

Listen carefully and you can hear the snow-fed river roar. The simple village church raises its belfry as if it were a hand asking that humanity’s work be added to the Creator’s.

Credit cards are not accepted – nor needed. The foyer’s guests live here free of charge. Only the poor and lonely should apply.

After more than 15 years of civil war, there were many poor and lonely in Lebanon. In 1976, just after the conflict began, Mrs. Semaan and her committee of supporters were among the first to see that as the Lebanese became refugees in their own land, international and local organizations rushed in to help the orphaned, the widowed and the handicapped. The elderly were ignored. Mrs. Semaan tells how she heard the same response time and time again when she sought assistance. “Oh, the aged. Life is over for them anyway.”

Many of Lebanon’s existing institutions for the elderly provide only basic care. Thus the elderly live out their days in numbness, solitude and moral distress.

Mrs. Semaan pledged she would create a warm and personal home for these people, a place where the elderly were heard, attended to and supported in their time of suffering, fear and in those moments of hope.

The foyer’s 20 “têtes blanches” range in age from 70 to 102 and live in a dream come true. Each guest has a private room with bath. Hot water and central heating insure comfort when winter arrives.

Life in Lebanon’s Shangri-la is not strictly regimented. Mornings are laid back. No one stirs much before eight except for the chickens whose fresh eggs appear on the breakfast menu – “But only every other day,” Mrs. Semaan says with a laugh. Even in Shangri-la there is concern over cholesterol. Bath time is a daily part of the routine. Rooms are kept tidy by the residents themselves if they are able. Regular, thorough cleaning is done by the staff.

Seasonal decorations keep some semblance of time but avoid routine. During the Christmas season the foyer’s créche has a “suburb” of little houses.

“Residents are invited to choose a house and pretend it’s theirs,” Mrs. Semaan explains. Birthdays call for a special menu and, of course, a cake.

Chitchat echoes from the hallway. Halfway down is a small room where friends can converse in private and not disturb the television watchers in the living rooms. Mint green and soft pink furnishings and fabrics complement the natural wood cupboards and doors.

Those television dens are the foyer’s entertainment centers. The piano too, often has its keys exercised by volunteers who come and play requests that take the residents back a “few” years.

The foyer’s committee – a group of women who give freely of their time – meets several days a week. The women often have a surprise up their sleeves. Not long ago they asked the residents their favorite songs and then called them in to a radio request program.

The foyer’s chapel reflects the nonconfessional philosophy of the home and can serve each guest’s personal faith. Clergy from a number of Christian communities visit regularly. Worshippers are welcomed by a painting of Jesus with arms outstretched, an altar made from the trunk of a venerable olive tree and fresh flowers picked from the foyer’s gardens.

As perfect as this Shangri-la may sound, bills ground it in reality – the needs of the elderly are many. Mrs. Semaan’s little black hook is full of names of doctors and hospitals who will treat the residents without charge. The committee never rests in its creative activities that annually bring in much needed funds.

In 1991 the Pontifical Mission aided the home by donating $10,000 for a water reservoir. In 1993 a donation of $6,000 was granted for a fund toward the purchase of a van to facilitate outings.

Why would anyone want to leave this paradise? Once in a while the residents leave Shangri-la to attend a play, enjoy lunch in a shady restaurant, or just to go for a drive. The vehicle used for these outings only seats eight. That is when Mrs. Semaan’s little black book comes out and friends are called to provide transportation so the other residents do not have to stay behind.

Once a year the Little Brothers of the Poor, a French religious community who maintain links with the foyer, invite a group of the residents for a three-week stay in France. Pilgrimages, tours and cultural activities, as well as popular spots like the zoo, fill their days and, for many, answer a dream or two.

Foyer des Têtes Blanches opened just before Christmas in 1976. The timing may have been coincidental, but it was also meaningful. Mrs. Semaan and her friends saw that there was no room in the inn for the elderly poor. So they built an inn. And last year, on the foyer’s 17th anniversary, the committee’s Christmas present to the foyer was a ground-breaking ceremony for another inn, another Shangri-la, where commitment and Christianity walk hand in hand.

Marilyn Raschka, a frequent contributor to Catholic Near East, writes from Beirut.

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