Drinking games, sex talk and jigsaws - this is life in a unique Dutch retirement home. Young and old live side-by-side sharing the joys of life, and the sadness of death, together.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, May 3, 2016 - 21:30
Channel: 
SBS

“You have to try to throw a white ping pong ball into the beer, and then you have to drink it,” Annie Middelburg explains about the ‘beer pong’ drinking game she’s just learnt.

She’s 84… but she says that things are lot more fun when she’s spending time with youngsters like 22-year-old Jurrien Mentink.

He’s one of six students who live rent free at the Humanitas aged care home in Deventer near Amsterdam. In return, they agree to spend at least 30 hours a month socialising with the older residents.

“Students struggle to find housing in the Netherlands, especially in big cities,” Jurrien tells Dateline's Aaron Lewis. “I pay nothing to live here.”

‘A smile a day keeps the doctor away’: The joy of intergenerational living
Gea Sijpkes wants to provide more than just healthcare in her aged care home in Holland, she wants the residents to find excitement and a smile every day. She’s achieved that by letting students live there too.

Amsterdam was short of 9,000 student rooms in 2014 alone, while two years earlier, the Dutch government cut care funding for people over 80.

Those two shortages prompted Humanitas to come up with this cheap way of providing better care, and company, for their residents.

“I think that the students influence the whole tone of the conversation here,” CEO Gea Sijpkes explains on the thinking behind her idea. “So that it’s not only about death, sickness and old age, but also about youth, about parties, about girlfriends.”

In fact, a lot of the talk here revolves around sex!

“I saw you came in late with a pretty girl,” 93-year-old Joke van Beek says to Jurrien. “And did things go well?”

“Things went well, it was good,” he tells her. “I escorted her home like a gentleman.”

“They sometimes like to flirt with a young guy,” another student Jordi Pronk tells Aaron. “You pass by and they whistle or wink at you or they give you a little slap on the behind.”

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

‘Everyone talks about sex – a lot’: Holland’s take on aged care
Students live alongside seniors at the Humanitas retirement home in The Netherlands, and when Aaron Lewis arrived to film for Dateline, he found one quite unexpected topic brings the generations together.

Rather than a generation gap, these old and young people have become very close by living side-by-side.

“Things are a lot more fun when we're all together,” Annie says as Jurrien shows her how to use Facebook on her tablet. “They become like your own sons… you consider them like your own family.”

“What I see from the elderly is that they really enjoy the little things,” Jurrien explains. “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.”

The Intern Diaries: My 93-year-old Flatmate
What have the students learnt from living alongside the elderly at the Humanitas retirement home in The Netherlands?

But they know that as well as making life enjoyable for the residents at Humanitas, they also have a serious role to play. And Jordi feels added responsibility in the dementia ward.

“Sometimes you have to explain to people that they may have forgotten that their husband or parents have already passed away,” he says.

“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.”

And inevitably these are friendships that can quite suddenly come to an end, as they face the final moments of life together. For Annie, that means a typically upbeat approach.

“I’ve already had three people dying in their chairs at dinner,” she tells Aaron. “But it happens, it doesn’t worry me.”

“She wished me a good life, to get the most out of it,” Jurrien says of a former 105-year-old neighbour shortly before she passed away. “It’s a nice feeling to help them find their final moments of happiness.”

See the full story at the top of the page, plus also catch up on Insight's discussion on aged care in Australia

That Old Question
How do we give older Australians the housing choices they want?

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Credits

Transcript

Like most of us, I'm afraid of getting old and of the loneliness that seems to come with old age. But maybe things don't have to be that way. Jordi is a young artist.

JORDI PRONK, HUMANITAS RESIDENT:  Hello, come in.

And he lives in a unique old folks home, in the Netherlands. He paints and creates craft projects like this table he made from a piano crate.

REPORTER:  And you do that a lot with the residents?

JORDI PRONK:  Yes, it's right to do it.

REPORTER:  Is that a picture of your family?

JORDI PRONK:  My grandfather and my grandmother when I was younger.

REPORTER:   Adorable.

JORDI PRONK:  I love them. I love them a lot.

REPORTER:  Is it the relationship with your grandparents that helps you be so good with the elderly here?

JORDI PRONK:  I think also because they teach me so much good things, how to go around to people. Yeah, everything.

Not long ago, the Dutch senior citizens who live at Humanitas, invited Jurrien and five other students to move in rent free. The students all told me that living here was nothing like you'd expect.

JURRIEN MENTINK, HUMANITAS RESIDENT (Translation): I was lucky to be one of the first students to apply, but I didn’t know that at the time. I responded quickly and got a place.

JORDI PRONK (Translation):  It’s most important that we can all be ourselves and so we all interact in different ways with the residents.

One of Jordi's favourite ways to spend time with his neighbours is by taking them around the town of Deventer, in the specialised tandem bicycle. It’s just one of the ways that Humanitas tries to make life in its community a little more fun.

GEA SIJPKES, CEO HUMANITAS (Translation): I want it to be the warmest and most pleasant residence in Deventer. We can’t do this with extra personnel because everyone knows this has to be done with less funding. And we have to make our spending sustainable. So then I started thinking about making a connection with education.

It was the CEO's Gea Sijpkes’s idea to offer the students rooms at Humanitas and all she asked in return is that the students spend at least 30 hours a month acting neighbourly to the senior residents. Jurrien Mentink says that Humanitas' offer couldn't have come at a better time. Many Dutch students in and around Amsterdam today can't find a room to rent at all.

REPORTER:  Now I'm off to cook dinner.

JURRIEN MENTINK:  Yes.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation):  Students struggle to find housing in the Netherlands, especially in big cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht.  I pay nothing to live here.

Jurrien is 22 years old, and his neighbours like Joke Van Beek are in their 80s and 90s. Despite the age gap, Jurrien and Joke's friendship has a dynamic that often seems like it's between two teenagers.

JOKE VAN BEEK, HUMANITAS RESIDENT (Translation): You were very quite, but I saw that you came in late with a pretty girl.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): Exactly, she was pretty, wasn’t she?

JOKE VAN BEEK (Translation):  Yes. And did things go well?

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation):  Things went well. It was good.  I escorted her home like a gentleman.

JOKE VAN BEEK (Translation):  Oh, then you were a good boy!

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation):  A good boy, right?  I thought I should do that.

JOKE VAN BEEK (Translation):  What do you think of the student next door?  It’s great, he came to see me and it clicked right away.  And he is very polite and he checks up on me every day to see how I’m doing because I am not so young anymore. I am 93 years old.

Friendships like this one are exactly what Humanitas is trying to nurture. How Jurrien spends his 30 hours a month of service is up to him. His official title isn't staff or volunteer, it's good neighbour.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): I really like these people are super. And I am reminded over and over that they are just normal people.

At Humanitas good neighbour somehow means being part local, part-friend, part-grandchild, part-social worker, part-healthcare provider, and some days it means teaching an 84-year-old woman to play beer pong.

ANNIE MIDDELBURG, HUMANITAS RESIDENT (Translation): Last week the game with the little balls was so much fun. I don't know if you ever tried it. Ten cups on one side, ten cups on the other side which they half-fill with beer... then you have to try and throw a white ping-pong ball the ball in the beer and then you have to drink it. They have modern music and then we join them!

GEA SIJPKES (Translation):  I think that the students influence the whole tone of the conversation here...so that's it not only about death, sickness, and old age...But that it's also about youth, about parties, about girlfriends.

JORDI PRONK (Translation): Sometimes I am dating and I take somebody home at a certain point. There are two residents that I always have to visit if I have a new girlfriend. Then afterwards I hear how they really feel, what was good and what was bad about her.

Later you hear:  "He has another girlfriend... he's doing well, he’s very happy." Then I think to myself: "They seem to know more than me". They are very curious and keep an eye on everything.
Really everything.

ANNIE MIDDELBURG (Translation): We always ask him how it's going.  He is very romantic. Oh my - he spreads little hearts on the bed if he brings his girlfriend home. And we laugh about it. Yes he is very romantic.

I noticed early on that the students here often talk with a sort of calm beyond their years. They don't often seem in much of a hurry. Jurrien says that that is one of the most important life lessons the students have learned from their elderly neighbours.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): What I see from the elderly is that they really enjoy the little things. While younger people are more focused on their future and that they don't even notice things like how beautiful this park is, they are just racing through it on their way to work or school.

TRIJNTJE HOFSTEEDE, HUMANITAS RESIDENT (Translation):  Be happy with what you still have, don’t focus on what you can’t do anymore, but on what you can do and you will be happy.

The students all talk about Mrs Hofsteede as a role model, for living a full and happy life in later years. She moved in a few years ago.

TRIJNTJE HOFSTEEDE (Translation):  This is a warm place. You notice the warmth right away, that makes it so special.

She lives on the 7th floor in a spacious room, overlooking the part and she says she feels younger than her 88 years.

TRIJNTJE HOFSTEEDE (Translation):  Hello.  We were married on 28th August, 1951.

At lunchtime the most social time every day at Humanitas, Mrs Hofsteede always sits at the same table. You see the Humanitas dining room is a lot like a high school cafeteria. Mrs Hofsteede is quite popular and so she always sits with the other popular girls. Like her best friend Antonia, whose nickname is the trash compacter.

REPORTER:  Appetite, I like that.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): You would think an old people’s home would be old and dusty, but I think it is just like high school. Every table has a particular group that always sits there. This one is the nerdy table, and this one is for the pretty girls, and then the football table with the tough guys, and this is the group that does not belong anywhere.

Like high school, lunch time is when the rumour mill really starts to turn. Outside of the time they volunteer, the students are free to live without any special restrictions - going out or bringing people home, just as they like.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): There is a lot of gossiping here. If one student brings someone home…then the gossip starts, that new story spreads everywhere. One time I brought a blond girl home, it spread lightning-fast through the home. It’s crazy but also very funny.

And there's a lot more flirting that goes on than I expected to find in an old folk's home.

JORDI PRONK (Translation): What's quite funny is that there are quite a lot of women living here, and they sometimes like to flirt with a young guy, you pass by and they whistle or they wink at you, or they give you a little slap on the behind.  They all like doing that, and we know that they are just having fun.

REPORTER (Translation):  The students say that the ladies flirt with the boys.

TRIJNTJE HOFSTEEDE (Translation):  That may well be.

REPORTER (Translation):  And that’s fun?

TRIJNTJE HOFSTEEDE (Translation):  Of course. It’s all part of the game, isn’t it?

The students all like teaching their senior neighbours a lesson from time to time. Everything Mrs Middelburg knows about the internet, see learned from Jurrien.

ANNIE MIDDELBURG (Translation): Ah, this way you can see more, this is new to me.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation):  You can find all of it.

ANNIE MIDDELBURG (Translation):  Yes, but you need to know how.  Don’t forget I’m already 84!

Jurrien says that none of this feels like some community service. He and Mrs Middelburg, they just like hanging out.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation):  We see each other quite often, I run into you everywhere. 

ANNIE MIDDELBURG (Translation):  Things are a lot more fun when we're all together.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation):  We're good company.

ANNIE MIDDELBURG (Translation):  You hang out with them, and in the end they become like your own sons…the way we talk and do things, you consider them like your own family.

And how do Jurrien's own family feel about him living here at Humanitas? His parents have been as surprised as he has been, to find that Jurrien seems very happy here indeed.

MOTHER (Translation): In the beginning we had our doubts. Do you want this? Can you do it? Will you be happy here? It seems to be going very well and he feels like his heart is in the right place.

There is, of courses the unavoidable loneliness that accompanies dementia. The dementia ward is equipped with everything you could expect, but it has little of the warmth of the rest of the residents. Jordi feels an added responsibility to help those suffering dementia.

JORDI PRONK (Translation): Sometimes you have explain to people that they may have forgotten that their husband or their parents have already passed away. It's always a surprise – and every time you see that pain come again. It's hard to see those people intensely sad. Sometimes residents keep waiting for something that is not there...and that is quite difficult. I try to explain as honestly as I can and just comfort them.

Luxios is this man has a stage name, but I was never given another one and I never got the chance to ask. We didn't get to talk for very long, Luxios has lost the ability to talk much about the here and now.

LUXIOS (Translation): Here are photos from me.  I used to be a magician and I often used animals in my act.

I saw Luxios immediately, a kind of kindred spirit and it was like a glimpse of a possible future self, set adrift in my own fading memories. Having exchanged barely a word with him, meeting Luxios affected me a great deal. The hardest thing about living here, old or young, is how often death comes to call. Some of the seniors are still wracked with intense longing for lost loved ones.

REPORTER (Translation):  What happened to your wife?

HENK NORDER, HUMANITAS RESIDENT (Translation): Cancer.

Many others like Mrs Middelburg seem almost unfazed by the realities of death.

ANNIE MIDDELBURG (Translation): I've already had three people dying in their chairs at dinner...But this happens. It doesn't worry me.

A few of the students had never seen death up close before living here. For them, facing death has been the hardest and maybe most value lesson that Humanitas has taught them. 

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): One experience that stuck with me was having a neighbour who was 104 and who reached 105. In the end when I was in her room, she suddenly gave me a hand...she was in bed, and wished me a good life, to get the most out of it. She felt it was time to say goodbye and she was right because a few days later she had passed away. This sticks with me, because I didn't know it could be like that. It's a nice feeling to help them find their final moments of happiness...

Jurrien is about to graduate from a degree in urban planning. He's now considering devoting his career to old aged care instead.

JURRIEN MENTINK (Translation): I think in the end it’s been very important for me, both as a person and as something that will shape my future and my career.

No matter which direction he chooses from here, Jurrien won't forget the importance of being a good neighbour like he has been to Joke Van Beek. That day he told me that he had started to see the signs of Joke slipping away, and then only a few weeks later, Joke passed on and I know that Jurrien has missed her since she's been gone.

It took me a little while to grab hold of what makes this place different than anywhere else I've been. Humanitas hasn't somehow cut out the hard realities of ageing. It's just that it let's so much more than that through its front door. As I went to say goodbye on the last day of my visit I passed by the weekly wheelchair dance recital. This was the other moment that really stayed with me. Again, I could see myself reflected back. Years on from now, and for that moment, I really didn't mind the idea of getting old. 

Video Journalist/Editor
AARON LEWIS

Producers
MEGGIE PALMER
BERNADINE LIM

Researcher
JAMES ELTON-PYM

Music
VICKI HANSEN

Translations
MARGREET VAN DUIVENDIJK
MARIËTTE WOUDENBERG
VINCENT BUIJTENDIJK

Thanks To
HUMANITAS
BOUDEWIJN BOLLMANN

3rd May 2016