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How adding youth to a Dutch old age home is improving life for all

Deventer, Netherlands (CSM) – It’s not every day that someone living in a retirement home break-dances his way to a TV game-show prize by hopping upside-down on his right hand 75 times in less than two minutes.

But Sores Duman, who managed that feat earlier this month, is not your everyday retirement home resident. He is a 27-year-old student, one of six living at the Humanitas nursing home in this provincial Dutch town who are blowing a blast of fresh air through a traditionally sleepy institution.

“Old people can feel cut off from society,” explains Mr. Duman, his bushy black hair springing out from under a beanie. “We bring the outside world inside. We bring some joy and excitement.”

And the older residents seem to love it. “Without them it would be boring here,” says Annie Middelburg, an 85-year-old doing some knitting by a picture window one recent autumn afternoon. “It’s a lot happier than before.”

Humanitas is pioneering a movement catching on around the world, from Cleveland to Helsinki: intergenerational living. Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness among the elderly are killers; contact with younger people is good for their health.

And contact with older people is good for the students too. “We get lessons in life that we wouldn’t get in normal student housing,” says Patrick Stoffer, a young man in his final year of facility management studies. “Living here gives you a different perspective; it has definitely changed me for the better.”

Good neighbours
Once upon a time, growing up with your grandparents around was the norm in Europe and the United States. In many parts of Africa and Asia, it still is.

For Gea Sijpkes, Humanitas director, the intergenerational approach was a solution to two problems. On the one hand, she says, cost-cutting reforms of the Netherlands’ care homes “made me re-think what business I was in and I decided I was in the happiness business.

“Maybe I can’t fix your bad knee, but I can make your living environment warm, funny and surprising, a place you’d want to be,” she adds.

At the same time, the state was cutting back on student grants. So Dr. Sijpkes offered rent free rooms in her care home to local students, in return for 30 hours a month of being a “good neighbour,” brightening the place up.

Not without opposition from her board. “To them, students meant sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll,” Sijpkes recalls. “How could I think of letting them live among the vulnerable elderly?”

As long as the students keep the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll behind the closed doors of their rooms, they are obeying the only house rule: Don’t be a nuisance. And since the first student moved in four years ago, they have discovered that being a “good neighbour” means a lot more than just helping serve high tea each afternoon.

It means being visible and ready to spend some time with the older residents, whether it is spent watching a soccer match or painting an old lady’s nails. “It’s socializing, saying hello, stopping for a chat and you find you both have a smile,” says Mr. Stoffer.

An idea spreading
Sijpkes says the Humanitas experiment in intergenerational living has drawn “crazy” levels of international interest, with visitors and queries from all over the world. And a number of similar projects are already underway elsewhere.

Harry TerBraak, a 90-year-old former hairdresser, says he feels younger because he is treated that way – he doesn’t blink at being greeted with a fist bump, for example, nor look puzzled when Stoffer addresses him as “dude.”

“With the students we’re among equals,” he says. “They do not treat us as if we were old, and that’s really important.”

That’s something that Duman has learned over the nine months he has lived at the nursing home.

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