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 cafeteria that morning in January 2016, residents were told that several young people were moving in as part of a pilot project by the city.
How is that going to work? Taimi asked herself.
At 82, confined to the wheelchair since a stroke in 2001 paralyzed her left side, she couldn’t imagine what she’d have in common with a youngster who wasn’t family. Her reverie was interrupted when a slim young man with dark hair and a tentative smile appeared in her doorway. She’d left it open, as she always did in the morning.
“Hi! I’m your new neighbor across the hall,” 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, going into her kitchenette. “Why don’t you tell me 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 from a heart attack, leaving her to raise four kids. Of toiling as a cleaning lady before getting a job in a factory that produced margarine; 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.
“Thank God I’m right-handed!” she said, nodding to the left one resting on her lap, curled into a claw.
In turn, Jonatan Shaya, now 20, told Taimi he’d been born in Tel Aviv of an Israeli father and a Finnish mother and had been living in Helsinki with his mom and younger brother until they moved to another town.
“I couldn’t go with them because I’m in the middle of a course to become 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 to live in the world. Then he heard about a new city 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 the seasons pass outside her window and the young man who brought the outside in—sometimes with home-made cinnamon buns.
“I like cinnamon buns,” said Taimi.
With housing costs climbing out of reach for those without a deep pocketbook across Europe and North America, 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 numerous studies in the European Union, Canada and the U.S. 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 or showed symptoms of it, while men over the age of 80 had the highest suicide rate of all age groups.
“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 illness and something like living models provides an opportunity not only to socialize but to change attitudes and ideas—to pass their experience and knowledge to a new generation.”
Gia already knew that seniors enjoy health benefits when they are with younger people, from fighting off dementia to regulating blood pressure, and it struck her that she was constantly reading stories about students struggling to make ends meet while at college.
She thought, why not marry the two? She was in the business of happiness so why not create a rich environment here at Humanitas with the seniors and students who had been interviewed and thoroughly screened?
When she proposed it to the residence’s board members, they thought she had gone mad. “To them, the very idea of students, with their sex, drugs and rock and roll, living among seniors, was crazy,” she said.
But Gea persevered, finally persuading the board to agree to one student living in the residence on a trial basis for half a year before it rejected the proposal outright. In return for free room and board, the student would have to be a ‘good neighbor’ at all times 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 just free accommodation, according to Sores Duman, 27, a communications student at the HAN University of Applied Sciences in Arnhem. He has been at Humanitas since March 2016, in a studio apartment next door to 92-year-old Marty Weulink.
“We’re all friends on an equal basis with something to offer each other, be it the wisdom of experience or how to do something technical,” Sores says.
Marty is at once practical and sentimental. “Sores helps me navigate on 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 do consider him my grandson!”
Sores laughs. “Marty has taught me how she experienced World War II,” he says. “What living here has taught me is 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? “We can tweak the idea to suit our needs,” he told his colleagues. “We needn’t limit it to students.”
It was a win-win, he said. The young people would pay a modest rent for a studio apartment with a kitchenette and bathroom. In turn, they would bring their vitality and different perspectives to seniors who could be marginalized 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 neighbors, no matter if it was over a cup of coffee or an outing in a nearby park.
And Rudolf House—a series of white concrete, low-rise buildings surrounded by trees 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 program 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 asking for applications resulted in 312 responses. Miki and a panel of experts that included a seniors’ representative from Rudolf House whittled down the applicants to 22 young 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 wheels her chair to the little round table covered with a plastic cloth and 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, surrounded by trees that appear to move in an unseen wind.
Jonatan and Taimi have sat countless times at that little table, talking and drawing as if they’ve known each other forever. On her wall is his drawing of a sensuous woman in early 20th century evening dress; caught in the yellow light of a street lamp, she wears a long striped gown, a stole and an elaborate feathered hat. 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.”
For his part, Jonatan, who now has a full-time job as a pastry chef, loves having someone living across the hall who he is friends with. “In Finnish culture, there is not usually a lot of contact with neighbors,” he said. “This is really special.”