April 5, 2015; PBS NewsHour, “The Rundown”

Nursing homes often depend upon younger generations to provide company and intellectual stimulation to residents. Usually, such gifts of time come in frustratingly short and unrepeated bursts. However, one Dutch retirement home has found a way to make youth a regular part of residents’ daily lives: the Humanitas retirement home in Deventer, Netherlands offers free rent to university students willing to live onsite and provide 30 hours of volunteer work.

PBS reports that six students from two universities are currently participating in the program, which began approximately two years ago. The retirement home serves 160 seniors. Youth are free to come and go as they please, provided they follow one simple rule: “Do not be a nuisance to the elderly.”

Thus far, the youth have engaged in a wide variety of intergenerational activities, including celebrating birthdays, watching sports, and spending one-on-one time with residents. It was even reported that one youth taught graffiti art to the curious seniors.

Many beds in retirement homes are going vacant after recent budget cuts by the Dutch government. Humanitas’s solution is a win-win for both the students and the facility.

According to the International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, Humanitas has “for a long time been on the forefront of innovation.” Similar models exist in Spain, France, and Ohio.

There is great potential for this and similar projects, even beyond the obvious benefits. For example, increased generational diversity might foster an environment more accepting of other types of diversity, such as sexual orientation.

Elderly-serving nonprofits considering this type of programming will need to develop screening procedures to minimize the risk of elder abuse. At a minimum, these procedures should include thorough interviewing, checking references, and conducting background checks. Some countries may also consider “free rent” (in exchange for service hours) to be income, and students may be taxed accordingly.—Jennifer Amanda Jones