On his way home from class, Jurriën Mentink takes a slight detour to pick up some fresh fillets from the fishmonger. His neighbor has an affinity for fish and, since he cycles by the market anyway, it’s really no trouble.
After paying, he hops back on his bike and heads home. He’ll visit his neighbor, have dinner, maybe do some studying or kick back to watch TV, much like any other university student.
Except home is a nursing home. And his neighbor just turned 93.
Mentink is one of six students living at Residential and Care Center Humanitas, a long-term care facility in the riverside town of Deventer, in the eastern part of the Netherlands. In exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month, students are able to stay in vacant rooms there free of charge.
Students in the Netherlands spend an average of 366 euros (roughly $410) each month on rent, up from 341 euros in 2012. Student housing is often cramped or dingy, and is increasingly difficult to come by. Amsterdam, for instance, was short almost 9,000 student rooms last year.
Meanwhile, long-term care facilities in the country are facing problems of their own. In 2012, the Dutch government decided to stop funding continuing care for citizens over the age of 80 who weren’t in dire need. A large group of aging adults, who had once benefited from a free, all-inclusive ticket to a home like Humanitas, found themselves unable to shoulder the costs.
The new ruling resulted in fewer people seeking long-term care communities, making it difficult for those communities to stay afloat. In order for Humanitas to survive in this new environment, it needed a unique selling point, one that wouldn’t cost residents any more than they were already paying.
“That’s when I thought of a group of other people—in this case, students—that also don’t have much money,” says Gea Sijpkes, the director and CEO of Humanitas.
“If they could get a room in Humanitas, they wouldn’t have to borrow so much money for their study,” Sijpkes says. “At the same time, I have some young people in the house, which makes Humanitas the warmest and nicest home in which everybody who needs care would want to live.”
As part of their volunteer agreement, Mentink and the other students spend time teaching residents how to send email, use social media, Skype, and even draw graffiti.
For the residents, the students represent a connection to the outside world. When the students come home from a class, concert, or party, they share those experiences with their elderly neighbors. The conversation moves from aches and pains to whether a student’s girlfriend will be staying the night.
Research links loneliness to mental decline and increased mortality, and regular social interaction with friends and family has been found to improve health in older adults. Saying hello, sharing a joke, bringing fish from the market: It’s the little joys of everyday life that the students bring to the seniors at Humanitas.
But it isn’t always just the little things. Mentink recalls being woken up in the middle of the night by a staff member. One of the residents had attacked a nurse. The resident was extremely agitated and nothing the staff did seemed to help.
“When she saw me, it was like 180 degrees around,” Mentink recalls. “She was instantly relaxed and happy to see me.” Mentink had gotten to know her while giving her computer help. They spent the rest of the night watching Dirty Dancing before Mentink headed off to work.
The intergenerational living model is beginning to gain in popularity. Since Humanitas opened its doors to students in 2012, two more nursing homes in the Netherlands have followed suit. And a similar program was recently introduced in Lyon, France.
In the United States, the Judson Manor retirement community in Cleveland started accepting students from the Cleveland Institutes of Art and Music several years ago. As at Humanitas, the students are integrated among the resident population and have access to all the same amenities.
To earn their keep, they participate in the musical arts committee, assist staff therapists, and volunteer at various events throughout the year. Judson also requires them to give quarterly performances at each of their three campuses.
One student at Judson interviewed every resident, spending over an hour with each one, and compiled a keepsake book. She’s now working on a second volume to include additional residents.
Another student became so close with a resident that she asked her to be the flower girl at her wedding. The older woman declined, physically unable to make the trek to the West Coast, but threw a party for the couple at Judson instead.
Matthew Kaplan, a professor of intergenerational programs and aging at Pennsylvania State University, says these relationships can acquire far more depth than is possible with “the one-shot-only activity, where kids come into the long-term care facility, sing a song and then go home.”
That may be nice, he says, “but it’s not until [the older and younger people] have a real relationship—which takes a lot of interaction—that it becomes meaningful.”