Sunday, 1 November 2015

What a lovely idea!

Student Jurriën Mentink often cycles by the fishmonger on his way home from college. His neighbor loves fish for dinner, and it’s “no biggie” for him to pick it up on the way, he says. She is not very mobile anymore and has been living in an elder-care home for a while. 

The 21-year-old Mentink also lives there. When Mentink wanted to go study in the Dutch city of Deventer—urban planning—and was scoping out student accommodations, he heard about the Humanitas elder-care home search for “live-in students.” He called to inquire and was invited to drop by for an interview. 

A month later, he moved into his room, which measures 300 square feet (30 square meters), with his own bathroom and kitchenette. He doesn’t pay any rent; the room is free. In return he helps out in the elder-care home for around 30 hours per month. He does some shopping, helps prepare sandwiches, and organizes activities. Mentink describes what he does as “simply being a good neighbor.” A few elder-care homes in the Netherlands have been welcoming students to live in them lately. In the cities of Amsterdam and Arnhem, too, small groups of students are offered cheap or gratis living arrangements in exchange for volunteer work in the home. 

The idea started in Deventer, where about 165 senior residents live. Director Gea Sipkes wanted to add some life to the place by attracting young volunteers, and the students are looking for cheap, clean rooms to live in. The “live-in student” program is a great success. The senior residents get more personal attention and appreciate the volunteer work being done by the young people. “We bring a bit of the outside world along with us,” says Mentink. “Some small talk, conversation, and I think the old people become a bit younger by our just being there. And it’s not a one-way street—the old people are also interested in us.” 

Humanitas does require that the students pass a strict selection procedure, “mainly to be sure they have their hearts in the right place.” And there are rules, of course: no rowdy student parties are allowed in their rooms. After Deventer, similar projects were initiated in Amsterdam and Arnhem. In Arnhem, for example, the Vreedenhoff retirement home recently welcomed five students, selected out of 100 applicants, which indicates there is a lot of enthusiasm for the project. The students even did a round of “speed dating” with the residents. 

The idea has received a lot of positive attention in the international media, ranging from French press agency AFP to an Australian radio broadcaster. It’s no wonder, given that connecting generations in this way is a very noble idea. And smart, too, because the solution touches on multiple social problems: the lack of student housing, loneliness among older people, and the current vacancy rates in retirement homes, a result of the elderly more often continuing to live in their own homes for longer. 

“The idea is of an almost baffling simplicity,” says Mentink. “You can write books and books about it, about how to solve these problems. But if you just put people together, something happens.”

By Elleke Bal in the Intelligent Optimist (Summer 2015)

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