Friendship is Ageless: Part I

Author: AB Staff

Friendship is Ageless: Part I

Editor's Pick Relationships

43% of older adults experience social isolation, which is closely correlated to loneliness and depression, as well as mental and physical decline.

 If you’d like to witness inspiring change affecting those of all generations, look no further than a handful of progressive care facilities around the world. It may come as a shock to some, but communities once tailored strictly to elders are becoming havens of intergenerational splendor. The benefits of Int-Gen relationships have proven wildly abundant, as presented in this two-part series. The lesson: friendship has no age boundaries.

Part I

For many climbing the ranks into very old age, the only option is assisted care facilities. There are simply too many health issues that need to be addressed regularly, and having nurses at hand is a privilege too good to pass up. But too many of these facilities fail to address all of their residents’ needs. High on this list of necessities is human interaction, value, and connection, but a vast majority of elders instead suffer from loneliness and depression.

One progressive care director, Gea Sijpkes had an idea to redirect this course. Her “ship” is called Humanitas, a progressive care facility in Deventer, east of Amsterdam. Tasked with improving quality of life on a limited budget, she opted for an initially unpopular approach. Her vision: invited local college students to move in with elder residents, free of charge. She wanted to intermingle rambunctious, partying college kids with elders in desperate need of stimulation. There would be no rules, just casual, natural living for all ages.

While a flood of college students didn’t line up at the Humanitas gate, one social work student with spiky hair, Onno Selbach, took the bait. And just as expected, things immediately changed within the facility walls. A case of beer showed up near the wheelchairs, staff stumbled in on a naked, hungover Onno, and he frequently stumbled in drunk just before sunrise. But Sijpkes stayed strong, allowing the experiment to play out naturally. “I did nothing. I wanted to change the atmosphere of this place, which means the young people must be allowed to party, to stir things up.” There were no serious incidents, and soon five more students moved in. A new atmosphere enveloped Humanitas.

Now, on any given day in their home, students and elders can be found racing mobile scooters down the corridor, or simply enjoying a casual lunch together. Students have taken it upon themselves to teach their elderly friends everything from Facebook to beer pong. Elders have found new, eager ears to fill with war stories and life lessons. You will see a student helping his neighbor remove her sweater, or taking out an elder friend to a new Chinese restaurant in town. All of these interactions are planting sincere friendships, grown organically through shared time well spent.

The conversation shift is a clear sign of this. Students have shifted the discussions from ailments and medications to current events and honest discussions about the state of the world. Students are liaisons, carrying information and opinions that invigorate their elder companions. Humanitas has become a forum for Int-Gen debate, a blender of widely varying perspectives, garnered on opposite sides of a six-decade gap. These conversations can be astoundingly frank, addressing topics such as the students’ sexual promiscuity. After the youngsters shared their view, however, the elders conceded that they would have enjoyed it, too. Stories of Dutch wartime occupation are also a common theme, enthralling the students and igniting profound respect for the trials of previous generations. Onno remarked the stories of his 93-year-old friend were “like nothing you’ve ever read in a book.”

What’s remarkable is the organic progression of Sijpkes’ idea. What was once an opportunity for free housing quickly became much more. It has magnified an oversight of cultures around the world that isolate elders in nursing homes and hide their wisdom from young minds in desperate need of perspective. The strong bonds between young and old in Humanitas display the severe disadvantage of those outside its walls. Millenials around the world are lacking advice and wisdom, while elders miss out on much needed interaction.

It’s a fast track to a more appreciative perspective on life, a lesson in higher awareness. For elders, it’s the precious opportunity to feel alive until the very end, to engage with the outside world through the minds of the young, to feel connected to those just beginning their life’s journey, and to share all the spirit and understanding absorbed over a lifetime.

It was eager ears on both sides of the table. It was an opportunity to shine a light into an otherwise dreary world.

For youngsters swimming in anxiety of the questions and ambiguity of the future, there are mentors waiting to spew knowledge. For elders, there are young minds connected to the outside world who can provide the spark they need to feel alive and part of the human community once again.

Part of being human is feeling a sense of belonging and connection to the greater world and human population. Without this, we cripple up and fade away. We all deserve to tell our stories at all ages, and we can all benefit from interacting with those outside our circumstance. Life is a spectrum, and connecting the far ends is a great way to feel whole.

(Click here for Part II & Part III of our Int-Gen series)