A 19-year-old student moves into a retirement home with a neighbour 72 years his senior. This might seem like the opening line of a joke but it’s actually a very deliberate attempt at intergenerational living, the benefits of which are only just being realised.
Many of you will have seen the feel-good story of Gea Sijpkes, chief executive of a Dutch Nursing Home who leapt at the opportunity to solve two social problems (rising cost of aged care and student housing) through one innovative solution – a share house for young and old.
The theory is beautiful in its simplicity; students assist with everyday activities and provide companionship to elderly residents in exchange for subsidised (or free) accommodation while they study at a nearby university.
The financial benefits are obvious but the social benefits are tear-jerkingly wonderful.
For the older residents Sijpkes describes the arrangement as “a social return on investment against loneliness” as the students are able to bring the outside world into their lives and building. The benefits are significant – active and involved seniors with close intergenerational connections consistently report less depression, better physical health and a higher degree of life satisfaction.
For the students, it adds a social depth to their academic pursuits. Their learning experiences can be enriched with the older residents’ expertise and knowledge. But most importantly, they can teach us about the end of life, which informs the whole of our lives. Its what I refer to as a healthy dose of perspective!
Although Sijpkes developed this program specifically for her nursing home she sees no reason why the concept couldn’t be applied worldwide. And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I believe that intergenerational living should form an integral part of the university campus of the future.
It’s well known that the world is in the midst of a unique and irreversible process of demographic transition that will result in older populations everywhere.
The 2015 Intergenerational Report projects that over the next 40 years, the proportion of the population over 65 years will almost double to around 25 per cent.
In Australia, the number of people receiving aged care services is expected to increase by around 250 per cent over the next 40 years, with some 3.5 million people (10 per cent of Australia’s population) using aged care services by 2050. That’s a lot of oldies.
A vision for care fit for the twenty-first century report released last year recommends that housing for elderly people be incorporated into city centre shopping developments, trendy new apartment blocks and university campuses to prevent future generations of older people being cut off in care ghettoes. The report emphasises the importance of deliberately incorporating housing for older people on the same sites as gyms, libraries, doctors’ surgeries and childcare centres to “normalise” them rather than segregating generations.
Universities have an obligation to equip the next generation with the knowledge required for a career, but they also play a part in providing the knowledge about how to become a useful (kind, compassionate, responsible) citizen of the world. What better way to do that than to entrust them with a degree of responsibility and care for our senior citizens?
Lastly, with Millennial’s expressing a strong desire to live their values, it makes sense for sustainability to form the foundation of these developments, even if the retirement sector is yet to come to grips with sustainability. #justsayin
Briana Thompson is an ecologist, eternal optimist and sustainability strategist at Republic of Everyone.