Aged care meets student housing: The ultimate “generation gap” inverse

Fotolia young woman computer older woman man

Fotolia young woman computer older woman manFrom kaleidoscopic tulip festivals to elegant city breaks in Amsterdam, the Dutch have given us many things. Now, the Netherlands is breaking new ground with a unique retirement home that champions young and old living side-by-side. Drinking games, jigsaw puzzles and heart-to-hearts covering everything from sex to death are just some of the antics that unfold at Humanitas, an aged care home that’s redefining the concept of assisted living.


What’s it all about?

Humanitas is tucked away in Deventer, a small town just over an hour’s drive from Amsterdam. 22-year-old Jurrien Mentink is one of six students who live at the complex rent free, in exchange for spending at least 30 hours a month socialising with the home’s older residents. For Mentink and his fellow students, Humanitas offers an innovative solution to the housing issues faced by a host of Dutch cities. Back in 2014 Amsterdam was lacking in roughly 9000 student-friendly rooms, which means projects like Humanitas play an important role in helping support education.

But it goes beyond financial aid…


Championing “human nature, civilisation and kindness”

The name “humanitas” is derived from a Latin noun meaning human nature, civilisation and kindness. The organisation stays true to its roots by championing the power of intergenerational living and offering its residents, both old and young, a truly unique experience.

There’s no shortage of research proving that social relationships are one of the most important factors when it comes to happiness, regardless of age. That said, the need for social interaction can become more important with age, especially as people start to lose their life companions or are forced to give up their independence. Loneliness is also a big issue faced by the elderly, with a recent report published by the University of Otago revealing that around one in five elderly Kiwis suffer from loneliness and social isolation.


Facebook, beer pong and sex

Gea Sijpkes, CEO of Humanitas, knows this better than anyone. Beyond providing aged care services, she’s bought to life her vision of bringing excitement, companionship and daily smiles to her elderly residents. This means 84-year-old like Annie Middelburg soon find themselves playing beer pong, learning the art of Facebook and ultimately, sharing stories of love, life and death, together.

“I think that the students influence the whole tone of the conversation here,” she explains in an interview with SBS’s Dateline. “So that it’s not only about death, sickness and old age, but also about youth, about parties, about girlfriends.”

The benefits are reciprocal, with younger residents finding insight, compassion and bucketloads of wisdom in their elderly companions.

“There are two residents I must visit if I have a new girlfriend,” muses student Jordi Pronk. “Afterwards I hear how they really feel… they keep an eye on everything.”

“What I see from the elderly is that they really enjoy the little things,” adds Jurrien. “Young people are so focused on their future that they don’t notice things like how beautiful this park is, they’re just racing through it on their way to work or school.”

It’s essentially the opposite of the so called “generation gap” and confirms that intergenerational living can be incredibly rewarding.


A multi-generational learning curve

Of course, it’s not all beer pong and sex talk. In the dementia ward the students often encounter confronting situations where they’re forced to explain that loved ones may have passed away. While it can be difficult it’s yet another learning curve for the students and they all appear to be handling it exceptionally.

“It’s always a surprise, every time you see that pain come again. It’s hard to see people intensely sad. Sometimes residents keep waiting for something that’s not there… I try to explain as honestly as I can and just comfort them.”


Lessons from the Netherlands

So, what can we learn from this wildly successful social experiment turned bona fide business plan? It could mean that in the next few years we see a similar concept offered to Kiwis. After all, cities like Auckland and Wellington face similar student housing issues as the Netherlands.

On a simpler level, Humanitas could serve as a profound example of how rewarding building “granny flats” and embracing intergenerational living in your own home could be. Or, even a reminder to take the time to visit your elderly loved ones in their aged care homes and encourage your children or grandchildren to do the same.

Could you get down with the idea of intergenerational aged care homes? Maybe you have experience caring for an elderly loved one? As always, we’d love to hear from you so go ahead and share in the comments below.