Can the Elderly and Students Save Each Other’s Lives? 10 Minute Read

by Derek Snook

“I don’t really like old people,” I told Sores, a Turkish born Kurd, 28 year old communications student, who receives free rent in exchange for serving, living, and participating in community events at Humanitas, an intergenerational co-living community with 160 elderly residents and 6 students in Deventer, Holland.  “I mean, it’s not their fault,” I continued. “It’s mine. The only older people I’ve ever spent time around is my grandparents. And I tend to not like people who are unfamiliar to me.”

We stood in Humanitas’s exercise room, decorated in the red and yellow colors of Go Ahead Eagles, Deventer’s local football team. Sores was doing his arms workout. He had done chest earlier in the day. He turned back to set the weight to a higher limit.

“At first,” he said, “I felt the same way. I’d only spent time around my grandparents too, and I hadn’t seen them since I was a small child. When I decided to live here, I saw the limitations of the elderly. But the longer I stay I now only see their possibilities.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Well, for example,” he began, “their knowledge. Most of the people living here survived World War 2. They know a lot about life and what’s most important.” He patted his arm with a towel. “Like the way they value time,” Sores continued. “To somebody young, ten or thirty minutes is just ten or thirty minutes, but to them it means more…and once you get to know them, they are a lot of fun. They can do more than you think. I mean,” he said, “most of them can’t run a marathon”—I chuckled at this—“but one of our students Shimane takes one of the elderly swimming, and when we have birthday parties they come play beer pong with us—“

“What?” I exclaimed. “They play beer pong? I want to play beer pong with the elderly.”

“Yea,” Sores said. “They chug beers, too.”

A New Approach to Community:

Humanitas is different from the moment you walk in. The furniture is modern. The floors are hardwood. The lighting is bright. To the right is a full book case. Straight ahead is the front desk and Benji, the front desk manager’s dog. To the left is a free coffee machine, strategically placed to facilitate interactions and conversations.

 Top left: Patrick, a student, talking with several of the elderly residents. Top right, when you walk in the seating area and bookcase to the right. Bottom Left: Sores saying hello to Benji (the dog) at the front test. Bottom right, coffee machine and seating area when you first walk in.

Top left: Patrick, a student, talking with several of the elderly residents. Top right, when you walk in the seating area and bookcase to the right. Bottom Left: Sores saying hello to Benji (the dog) at the front test. Bottom right, coffee machine and seating area when you first walk in.

That’s where I met Peter, a professional care taker who solves problems, gives tours, and ensures quality of life for the residents, the largest part of which he says is mitigating noise. “The real changes began with the students,” he says. “They brought life into a once lifeless place. That began to change everything.”

“The longer I am here,” Onno, one of the students says, “the more I feel a warmth and togetherness with the people here.” According to Peter, the elderly residents see the students as “their students.” Peter says the student’s presence “changes the conversation from joint pain and doctors visits to has he got a girlfriend or are they just friends?” 

The students in turn say they are learning patience, that life is about the small things. “Coming in here, the pace is just one step slower than outside,” says Patrick, another student. “When I put a picture on Facebook the elderly respond and say ‘hey, don’t mess around too much’ or ‘oh, how nice that you’re lounging in the sun.’”

What began as an experiment to improve the healthcare model has developed into a new approach to community design.

 Sores and another student helping out at lunch.

Sores and another student helping out at lunch.

Since inviting the students, Humanitas has begun experimenting by including others typically cut off from the rest of society.

Like Mark, who was born with a health issue that makes it difficult for him to be completely self-sufficient. Unhappy in his old institution, Humanitas gave him a chance to be a part of a community, employing him to talk with people and help out in maintenance. In exchange, he lives independently nearby while receiving the support he needs. When I met him, he invited me to his apartment that night for a drink and showed me a picture of the home he was in the process of buying. “They give me a bit of care and I give them love or play a game. That is so beautiful. Every day I wake up happy, it always makes me laugh.”

Cecilia, a 37 year old with an intellectual disability also lives at Humanitas. She came because of a desire to “live among ordinary people.”

“Humanitas offers me a chance to come into contact with people,” Cecilia says, “so that I do not isolate myself.”

I learned a few things from Humanitas that I hope will challenge the way we think about community and how we live, and how the well-being of the “other” provides an opportunity to improve our own well being:

1) Challenge the system…

The architect of Humanitas is Gea. When she’s not hugging her residents and pushing their wheel chair on to the elevator, she’s traveling the world telling the story of Humanitas and garnering local, national, and international support for their efforts. She’s tall and blonde and wears heels, a long blue dress, and sparkling ear rings.

 Gea in action. A few seconds after I took this picture she had her forehead pressed against the top of Marty's head. By the way, this is Marty from the first picture at the top with Sores. Though they are not related, she says Sores is like her own grandson.

Gea in action. A few seconds after I took this picture she had her forehead pressed against the top of Marty's head. By the way, this is Marty from the first picture at the top with Sores. Though they are not related, she says Sores is like her own grandson.

Gea does not like “the system.”

“I became a nurse because I wanted to help children,” she said. “But the more I worked the more I realized the hospital was not about the child but about the system. And I realized that I had to find a job where I could be the one in charge. So I studied and worked until I found a way to become the leader of the band.”

We sat at her table. She bounced back and forth to her desk, translating the occasional words and finding resources for me. “Have you had this much energy your entire life?” I asked.

“I hate systems that restrict people,” she continued. “If the rules need to be broken for the good of the people they should.”

Gea talked about systems in each of the three longer conversations we had. She hates when “few people have power over the larger group.” She expressed concerns about the over dependency created by the welfare state in the Netherlands after WWII, and how that stifles creativity. “Receiving care,” she says, “is a condition for life but it’s not life itself. I want to build a world where elderly to have new adventures of their own and fun and are not just spending their lives receiving care.”

Contesting the system is built into the DNA of Humanitas. On his tour, Peter explained to government employees why the government needed to start funding not only the rooms the elderly sleep in but also the public spaces where life is truly lived.

 One of many public spaces where residents enjoy music what felt like several times a day.

One of many public spaces where residents enjoy music what felt like several times a day.

2) By Flipping it Upside Down…

Humanitas flips conventional wisdom on its head.

“Take Alzheimer’s,” Peter said. “It’s not a disability or a disease. It’s an opportunity. People have three basic functions of thinking, feeling, wanting. When they lose the ability to think, the inhibitions of the mind fall away.” Peter told me about Gerard and his mother, and how they connect now differently than they had ever before. “I now put my arms around her,” says Gerard, “like she used to do with me when I was a little boy.”

 Pictures of residents with Alzheimer's hang on one of the executives of Humanitas' office wall. Gerard and his mother are in the picture on the right.

Pictures of residents with Alzheimer's hang on one of the executives of Humanitas' office wall. Gerard and his mother are in the picture on the right.

 Special care area for those with Alzheimer's.

Special care area for those with Alzheimer's.

Gea gave a talk in November at the University of Michigan.

When she asked administrators about their student’s biggest challenges, they said stress. “They said they faced much pressure to be successful, and that they are very protected and ‘young at heart’ and suddenly very far from home struggling with loneliness and thoughts of suicide.” (1)

Gea suggested that Michigan’s administrators should take her student model and flip it upside down. “At Humanitas we have 160 elderly and 6 students. Why can’t the University of Michigan, with 40,000 young people, have a few elderly living in each dorm? They could teach the young people to rest, slow down, and focus on the small things in life that make life worth living for.” (2)

I especially appreciated Gea’s approach to Design Thinking, which takes the idea that things should start big and flips it on its head to show why they need to start small before scaling.

“In the Netherlands we have a problem where young people from poor families have limited opportunities. On the other side, the care industry needs more good employees. So, I think to myself, ‘Why not hire a young person with limited opportunities to work with our elderly?’ I partnered a 14 year old girl with an elderly woman who recently lost her husband and is sad because she doesn’t get to see her grandchildren enough. And, if the girl develops, I can later offer her a job.”

The key is that Gea says “I start with one, just one, so that I can be there and help close up.” Doing all that you can to place yourself in the seat of the customer, and starting small, is the heart of empathy and the first step of design thinking. (3)

3) And Through Radical Acceptance.

“We used to have 100 questions we tried to ask potential residents in a single hour,” Peter said. “Now we only ask three. Who were you? Who are you? Who do you want to be?” These are the questions that we feel like matter. So long as people here want to belong and develop, we accept them regardless of their background. We ask everyone, ‘What are you going to add to the community?’ It can be small, it can be big. It doesn’t matter. I can only be human if I’m among people,” Peter continued, “I need a community to fall back on, but I also need space to develop.”  At Humanitas, radical acceptance doesn’t mean a lack of privacy or boundaries. But it does mean a heterogeneous society rather than a homogeneous one.

 Humanitas is now working through how to standardize their process, seen here.

Humanitas is now working through how to standardize their process, seen here.

Maintaining the balance of radical acceptance, community with privacy, and heterogeneity with consistency, is one of Gea’s biggest challenges. “When I was in Michigan they took me to a wealthy gated community for the elderly with all of these amenities. But with only the elderly there, without vitality and a heterogeneous balance, the community will die.”

For Gea and Humanitas, radical acceptance, vitality, and heterogeneous balance aren’t about the best health care, they are about the best life.

“I very much believe that if all you do is stay within the confines of rules and regulations it then becomes boring and you do not get the best out of people. I believe that you get the best out of people by surprising them, by experimenting with new things, by bringing back the twinkle in their eyes. If that is what you try again and again every day and start small you will make progress. That is one of our strengths. At Humanitas we just start with one example. If that succeeds we go on to the second and to the third. Every time, we get things moving, going forward again.”

Vitamin C pills vs. oranges:

Humanitas’ approach is counterintuitive for me, as an American, to grasp. While Humanitas comfortably wanders in the mysterious principles of conversation, chance interactions, acts of kindness, and smiles, our system values what its experts can measure, leading to a mindset that taking a vitamin C pill has the same effect on the body as eating an orange. But it doesn’t.

Even though we spend nearly twice as much money on health care as the next closest country while lagging behind a good many in life expectancy, very few experts would buy the idea that Gea suggested to the University of Michigan, that we could improve the lives of the elderly while decreasing young American’s rates of suicide.

For Gea and Peter, the weakness they observed in the American system is our litigious society that drives up attorney fees and insurance and the cost of care. (4) 

I don’t know why we have such homogenous communities in the United States. Maybe it’s our lack of trust and itching to sue that groups people off in neighborhoods with others like them, purchasing long term care insurance because they can’t trust their neighbors to help, doubling the size of homes in the last 50 years to extend the borders of their protected spaces? Or maybe its our meritocratic class system that perpetuates the likelihood Americans will take the same fate and status as their parents—for example, SAT scores correlate to parental income (of course there are exceptions)—even as it insists that because things like the SAT are based on merit everyone has an equal chance? Or maybe it’s our sincere but narrow version of Christianity, which growing up explained segregation in its churches based around “cultural differences” even though the last time I checked the last thing Christianity claimed to be was a perpetuator of culture in place of unity?

At the end of the day, “being the best version of yourself" requires heterogeneous communities. The weak help the strong grow in humility. The unattractive help the beautiful grow in inner worth. The old help the young grow in patience. Loving your neighbor as yourself was intended to give us life, not motivated by shame or self-righteousness or service oriented resume building, and to give us life to the full, to “be the best version of yourself.”

The mystery of needing each other can’t be proved through science or explanation, only experience. It’s the same difference a vitamin C pill has from an orange.

Thoughts without Action is Worthless.

When I survey my peers I see a desire for community and less isolation, for loving those different from them rather than polarization, for spending their time and energy on their passions and friends and families and not expenses they’ve been saddled with by society’s notion of being “practical” and “responsible.”

Observing the integration of the elderly opened my eyes to how my participation in their sequestration points to a denial of my humanity as well as our collective humanity. We’re all born to grow old and die. I am them and they are me at different points in time. My denial of this group of people from larger society reveals a denial of myself. And it points to my shortsightedness.

MLK often used the parable of the Good Samaritan to explain why people have a hard time helping the other. He believed the primary hold back wasn’t a lack of desire or interest or willingness, but fear. What if this is an ambush?

There’s reason to fear the other. Bad things do happen. One day, hours after explaining the love whites must have for blacks and blacks must have for whites, he was shot. (5) “ But even so, our lives—where we work, live, those we live with and the neighbors we choose—aim a trajectory toward fear or love; living towards fear will always limit love, but living towards love will overcome our fears, including death.

Most of us will not die prematurely out of love for our neighbor as MLK did. Rather, most of us will die in an elderly home like Humanitas. And when we do we will be grateful for those like Gea, who have the courage to take radical ideas and work them into the mainstream, who like MLK believed we can only love the neighbor we can see and touch and feel.

Gea has a flare of MLK in her. I witnessed it when I betrayed my fears by asking what she tells others to convince them to live heterogeneously in community. She echoed MLK’s desires over 50 years later from half a world away: “Oh Derek,” she said, “you can’t tell people anything to convince them. It’s like love. You can only show them. But when you do, they start to want it for themselves.”

P.S. If you're interested in other kinds of co-living, check out my experience in Frankfurt with a group of 6 people who co-live together, two of whom have a child together. Also, if you're interested in co-living yourself, consider signing up to be a guest or host here. If you want to support the work I'm doing around co-living, consider supporting my research trip here.

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(1) According Center for Disease Control and Prevention suicide in 2014 became the leading cause of death for Americans ages 10-34 aside from accidents.

(2) I asked Sores if living with the elderly interfered with his personal life. While he said he planned to move out in a few years if he had a serious relationship, he said “no, I can even throw parties because everyone takes their hearing aids out after 9 or 10.”

(3) Later that day Gea called me into a meeting with government officials visiting from The Hague. They expressed their concerns about providing the highest quality of care to citizens while balancing that with the responsible use of resources. I told them about the Google 80/20 principle where employees have the opportunity to use a portion of their time and resources on innovative projects. And I told them about design thinking, suggesting that they provide Gea and Peter and Humanitas with the opportunity to try, explore, and implement their ideas, especially on a micro level with minimal risk that can then be scaled if/when they work.

(4) I immediately thought of Jaipur Foot in India, a NGO that amputees from all over India flock to for prosthetic limbs that cost $30 to make and they receive for free. I watched amputees run and jump out of trees in these prosthetic limbs, and while they last up to 10 years they would never be allowed in the US because even though the joints were designed by scientists at MIT and Stanford, the limb itself is made of PVC pipe, a lawsuit waiting to happen. So, American prosthetic legs are made of titanium and cost $5,000+ and often do not last as long…

(5) Footnote: If you’ve never listened to MLK"s final sermon, it’s moving. His final words are “We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountain top. I don’t mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life, longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the promise land. I may not get there with you but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promise land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.