• Student Jordi Pronk and 86-year-old Joke Kerdijk spend time together singing, playing music and simply talking. (Humanitas)
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.
Gea Sijpkes, CEO Humanitas Deventer

3 May 2016 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 5 May 2016 - 12:12 PM

Getting old is not always easy. Moving to a residential care home, because living on your own becomes more difficult, or is not even possible any more, is not one of the moments in life that you look forward to. For residential care homes like Humanitas, the question is, what can such a residential care home do for the elderly?

Of course, providing appropriate healthcare is one thing, but what added value can Humanitas give the elderly? Humanitas has three main values that they want to build their environment upon. Those values are love, together and positive.

Humanitas wants to create a warm, cosy and rich community, where the elderly can find excitement and a smile every day. Humanitas should be a place one wants to belong to, a place where one wants to live. But how could this environment be created?

Humanitas felt that this environment could not be created with only the current professional staff. The professionals are primarily concerned with exercising their profession and less with the little extra things that can add that extra value to the residential care home. It should be more like good neighbours who care about each other.

That is where the idea of students as residents came up. At this moment in time, students in the Netherlands often have difficulties finding affordable rooms. Also, due to changes in long-term care, the vacancy rate in nursing homes is rather high.

Placing students and the elderly together would create a dynamic that benefits both parties. For students this is advantageous because now they can live in a place for free and have a warm place to come home to. For the elderly this is advantageous because the youngsters are around to bring positive energy, life and party stories, a little help and attention.

See the full story, My 93-year-old Flatmate.

We started with one student, not exactly knowing what it would bring. It was just a try-out to see whether this concept would bring what we expected it to bring.

Even though not all the elderly residents were unanimously positive about the idea of a youngster being their new neighbour, the results were astonishing, resulting in six students living with 150 elderly at this moment.

The students are energetic, friendly, helpful and often make just a different chat with the elderly than volunteers or professionals do. This adds so much value to the lives of the elderly in Humanitas.

The main directive for the students is to be a good neighbour. In exchange for 30 hours of voluntary work, the students get a room for free.

The concept only works when students understand the meaning of being a good neighbour. They should have a feeling for elderly people, they should pay attention to the elderly and should be able to adjust to the rhythm of the elderly.

It can be said that the 30 hours of voluntary work is just a matter of speech, as those 30 hours are not monitored. With this project, the culture of the organisation has changed from control-based to a more trust-based organisation. Trust is a key factor here.

The students live their lives in Humanitas. They study, party, come home at 5am or sleep until 1pm. They have friends coming over. They cook alone or together with students or the elderly. Also, they are showing their own initiatives to organise things for the elderly.

An example is one of the female students who organised a wellness evening for all the residents on her floor. The result: elderly with purple nail polish or their feet hanging in a hot tub. But most importantly, elderly grinning from ear to ear.

Other examples of activities organised for the elderly were a graffiti workshop and a street dance workshop. Elderly discovered that they had talents they did not know about.

‘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.

As a result, a special relationship arises between the ‘young’ students and the ‘old’ residents. Mrs Middelburg, one of the residents who is part of the client board, said that the students even became ‘like grandchildren’ for her.

The project of students living in Humanitas, who are being a good neighbour for the elderly, has been running for several years now. The outcome is astonishing and the benefits are uncountable.

Living together with people from different ages, with different perspectives, brings joy and excitement. It may be a part of a bigger movement, the motion from an exclusive, isolated society, towards a more inclusive/integrated one.

The project of students living with the elderly received much acclaim from news outlets, such as the BBC, Al Jazeera, the Independent, NRC Next and EenVandaag. All in all, over 30 different countries were interested in this concept and published about it, ranging from newspaper articles to interviews and videos.

In Helsinki, the first home, based on this idea of community living and shared interests (after visiting Humanitas in Deventer), has opened their doors. In Brazil an architect student has made students living amongst elderly the theme of her graduation.

So, the concept of students living together with the elderly is a concept in which both parties benefit. Both, the young and old, are adding value to each others lives. A smile a day for everyone, including the elderly, is what should be aimed for worldwide.

Hear more from Gea, the residents and students by watching the full Dateline story:

My 93-year-old Flatmate
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.