The Care Homes Reading Project | Humanitas Research

Meet my young roomie!

Posted on February 3, 2017 by Eleanor McKenzie

Some weeks ago I wrote about a concept called co-housing and an initiative in North London that is putting it into practice thanks to a group of inspired women. This time I’m looking at a new lifestyle model for elderly residential care rolled out in the Netherlands by social service organisation Humanitas. It is a novel solution to the eternal problem of the cost of student accommodation and the isolation of retirement home residents from mainstream society.

The Dutch Project

The Humanitas project offers students free accommodation at its retirement home in Deventer, and in return, as a form of payment, the students agree to spend at least 30 hours a month with the elderly residents, providing the kind of social interaction that promises to keep them physically and psychologically healthy. The students go for walks with their older ‘roomies’, cook meals with them, do their shopping or accompany them on shopping trips. They also teach them how to use computers, play games with them and some have even turned the senior citizens into budding street graffiti artists. The younger inhabitants also take the time to do that very important thing – they chat with the older generation, listen to their stories and exchange views. It is a valuable experience for both age groups, and it is not difficult to see the benefits all round.

Different generations tend to live in their own bubble, developing views and ideas that their peers share, but people from other generations don’t. Mixing two generations that are divided by many decades provides an opportunity for both the younger and older residents in this project to gain insights into each other’s worldviews.

The University of Exeter programme

The positive effects of inter-generational communication on the elderly are well researched: it extends life expectancy and reduces loneliness and social isolation. The effects on the younger participants in this Dutch experiment are less well known, but Johanna Harris, who ran a similar project at Exeter university, claims that it is “overwhelmingly positive – giving young people a sense of connecting with older generations, and significantly increasing the likelihood that they will continue to volunteer after university.”

The University of Exeter project, The Care Homes Reading Project, involved students from the English and Film departments, giving their time to “bring conversation, literature and friendship” to residents at 10 of the city’s residential care homes and during the course of the project some 250 students spent time with over 500 elderly residents.

The project proved particularly invaluable for elderly dementia sufferers at the homes. Johanna Harris says that reading poetry to dementia sufferers, particularly poems they are likely to have learnt by heart in their youth, provides a sense of comfort and reassurance, simply by hearing the verses and being encouraged to also recite the poem along with the volunteer. Harris chose student volunteers who understood the ways in which literature can change lives for the better and who also had a love of reading.

Care managers at the homes taking part in the project remarked on the positive effects and one told the press: “residents regained a sense of themselves as a whole person, past and present,” thanks to the reading sessions and the power of poetry to spark memories. One heart warming example is that of the centenarian resident who discovered after a play-reading session with a student volunteer that she could now recall long-forgotten speeches she had delivered when she was an actress.

The students also helped their new, older friends to write poetry, another has started giving ballet classes and other students have stepped in to provide conversation sessions in French and German. These are all activities that have the potential to boost the physical and mental health of seniors, but the benefits weren’t just a one-way street. The students enjoyed sharing literature outside of the university environment and some of the said that the experience reminded them why they had chosen to study literature.

Back in Deventer, student Jurrien Mentink, who has lived at the Humanitas residential home for two years with his 84-year-old roomie Anton, sums up the value of his experience: “It’s about being a good neighbour. Elderly people are full of life and as a student you can learn a lot.” Humanitas CEO Gea Sijpkes wanted students to bring the outside world in, play a role in creating a warm environment and live for “no rent, but provide a social return on investment against loneliness for the elderly,” and the concensus is that it is a success.

These initiatives are forward thinking and I already a list of friends who would love to see the Deventer model of residential care happen in the UK. Would you like to join them?

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.