Young and old living side by side is improving the lives of everyone
Taimi Taskinen settled in her wheelchair, preparing for a day that promised to be different from all the others in her ten years living at the Rudolf Seniors’ Home in Helsinki. During breakfast in the dining room that morning in January 2016, residents were told that several young people were moving in as part of a pilot project by the city.
At 82, confined to the wheelchair since a stroke paralysed her left side, Taimi couldn’t imagine what she’d have in common with a youngster who wasn’t family. Her reverie was interrupted when a young man with dark hair and a tentative smile appeared in her doorway.
“Hi! I’m your new neighbour,” the young man said. “My name’s Jona, short for Jonatan. Mind if I come in?” “Please,” she replied, at once curious and wary. “I’ll make coffee,” he announced. “Why don’t you tell me some more about yourself?”
Startling herself a bit, she did. She spoke of growing up in a mid-size lakeside town in eastern Finland and of her husband who died in 1970, leaving her to raise four kids. Of toiling as a cleaning lady before getting a job in a factory; of the terrible death of a son—her second eldest—on his 45th birthday back in 2002. Of her pleasant, uneventful life in the residence; of her love of drawing and painting, hobbies she’d picked up after the stroke.
"With high cost housing and health care spending cuts, intergenerational homes are helping to fill the gap"
“Thank God I’m right-handed!” she said, nodding to the left one resting on her lap, curled into a claw. In turn, Jonatan, now 20, told Taimi he’d been born in Tel Aviv of an Israeli father and Finnish mother and had been living in Helsinki with his mum and brother until they moved. “I couldn’t go with them because I’m in the middle of training to be a pastry chef,” Jonatan explained. “I needed to find somewhere to live, practically immediately.”
It wasn’t easy. Helsinki is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Then he heard about a new program called “Oman Muotoinen Koti,” or “The House that Fits.” “It’s the most genius idea, youngsters and older people living together,” he continued. “We can help each other!”
And so began a friendship between the elderly woman who’d spent ten years watching seasons pass outside her window and the young man who brought the outside in.
With housing costs climbing out of reach and with governments cutting healthcare spending, intergenerational retirement homes in various forms are starting to spring up to help fill the gap.
One of the first people to have that “genius idea” was Gea Sijpkes, director of Humanitas, a low-rise, yellow brick seniors’ residence in Deventer, a city of fewer than 100,000 in the heart of the Netherlands. Back in December 2012, Gea was looking for a cost-effective way to both enhance the residents’ lives and fill rooms empty due to fewer government subsidies to fill them. She was well aware of studies in the European Union, Canada and the US that found evidence linking isolation and loneliness to physical illness and cognitive decline. A 2014 report by the National Seniors Council in Canada, for example, found that up to 44 per cent of seniors living in residential care had been diagnosed with depression, while men over the age of 80 had the highest suicide rate of all age groups.
"I used to feel sorry for the elderly because they aren't able to do a lot. Now I see what they can do"
“Social isolation isn’t just an individual issue,” says Tamara Sussman, an associate professor of social work at McGill University in Montreal who was a consultant for the NSC report. “Seniors often don’t have opportunities to show themselves outside of their illnesses and something like this provides an opportunity not only to socialise but to change attitudes and ideas—to pass their experience and knowledge to a new generation.”
Gea already knew that seniors enjoy health benefits when they’re with younger people, from fighting off dementia to regulating blood pressure, and it struck her that she was constantly reading about students struggling to make ends meet. She thought, why not marry the two?
When she proposed it to the residence’s board members, they thought she’d gone mad. “To them, the idea of students, with their sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, living among seniors, was crazy,” she said.
At Rudolf Seniors’ residence in Helsinki, friends and housemates Jonatan and Taimi have a shared passion for painting—and cinnamon buns
But Gea persevered, finally persuading the board to agree to one student living in the residence on a trial basis before rejecting the proposal outright. In return for free room and board, the student would have to be a “good neighbour” and interact with the residents for at least 30 hours each month, from serving meals to helping with computers or just opening a bottle of wine—a seemingly simple task unless you have arthritic fingers.
“If it doesn’t work, I’ll kick the student out myself,” Gea promised. It did work—and the program has been going strong ever since. No more than six students live in Humanitas at a time with the 160 elderly residents. New ones are screened first by their peers and then by Gea. These young people gain more than free accommodation, according to Emile Allen*, 27, a communications student at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in Arnhem. He’s been at Humanitas since March 2016, in a studio apartment next door to 92-year-old Marty Weulink.
“We’re all friends with something to offer, be it the wisdom of experience or technical know-how,” Emile says. Marty is at once practical and sentimental. “Emile helps me with my iPad so I can contact my family,” she says. “When he stops by we talk, eat and drink and tell lots of stories. I’m not sure if I’ve taught him anything but I consider him my grandson! Emile laughs. “Marty has taught me how she experienced the Second World War,” he says. “Living here has taught me how to be more patient because everything slows down when you walk in here. I used to feel sorry for the elderly because they aren’t able to do a lot of things. Now, I look at them and see what they can do.”
When Miki Mielonen, a project manager in Helsinki’s youth department, heard of the Humanitas program, he thought, why not here? For him, youth homelessness was the immediate problem. The numbers told the story: in 2015, more than 1,000 people between the ages of 18 to 25 were without a permanent home in the city, drifting from one couch to another, trying to study or work. Why not take some of the empty apartments in retirement homes and charge a small rent to young people in return for them spending time with the seniors?
"I'm more open. Bona has inspired me to get out of my room and talk to people, young and old"
It was a win-win, he said. The young people would pay modest rent and in turn, they would bring their vitality and different perspectives to seniors who could be marginalised by their health conditions and living situations. There would be no hard and fast rules but rather an undertaking that the young people spend time with their neighbours, no matter if it was over a cup of coffee or an outing in a nearby park.
Student Anneloes Olthof shares lunch with other residents at Humanitas in The Netherlands
And Rudolf House—a series of concrete, low-rise buildings in the east end of the city—was the perfect place to start because the physical structure, with lots of stairs and long hallways, was difficult for some seniors to navigate, thus leaving a number of apartments vacant. At first, his colleagues, too, were skeptical. Wasn’t such a programme asking for trouble? How would the young people deal with things such as finding a senior unconscious, or dead? What about parties, loud music and smoking?
“Let’s try it—just a few students at first who are interested in bridging that gap,” Miki suggested. “We have nothing to lose.”
In November 2015 a Facebook post resulted in 312 responses. A panel of experts whittled down the applicants to 22 people who went through in-depth interviews and wrote short essays about why they wanted—and needed—to live in a seniors’ residence. By December, three of them, including Jonatan, were chosen.
Back in Taimi Taskinen’s room in Rudolf House, she opens her sketchbook. Leafing through the pages, she considers studies she has done of a barn from various perspectives, simple black and white sketches that bring the wooden structure to life.
Jonatan and Taimi have sat together countless times, talking and drawing side by side as if they’ve known each other forever. On her wall is his drawing of a sensuous woman in early 20th century evening dress. And besides the barn studies, Taimi’s paintings include birds taking flight, black shadows against a blue sky.
“I’m more open,” she said. “Jona has inspired me to get out of my room and talk to people, young and old.”
* names have been changed