Could our intergenerational conflict be solved by students living with the elderly?
Society is more divided by age today than any other time in history, but is this fuelled by Brexit of the widening generation gulf? A Dutch experiment integrating university students in an elderly care home could be the solution, says David Barnett.
As I wrote this, two events of wildly differing importance yet which share a connection were occurring.
The first was that Brexit ministers were beginning to fall like dominoes, beginning with Dominic Raab and continuing on an almost hourly basis throughout the morning. The second – which, admittedly, was on a much more personal level – is that my latest novel has been officially published.
One necessarily swamped the other, of course, in terms of relevance to the population at large. But the two things are inextricably linked, in that my latest book – The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert – is essentially about Brexit, and more specifically the generational divide the EU referendum brought into sharp relief.
According to the statistics and market research organisation Statista, 66 per cent of women and 62 per cent of men aged over 65 voted to leave, while in the 18-24 age group, 61 per cent of males and a whopping 80 per cent of women voted to remain in the EU.
The novel isn’t about Brexit, of course; that would be boring. But it does tease out this inter-generational conflict that Brexit has thrown up, and it does so through the lens of a real-life attempt to solve this conundrum which is running in the Netherlands.
Towards the end of 2016 I became aware of a project running in Holland where a nursing home had invited university students to move in with the elderly residents. It was one of those stories that chimed with me, and which I filed away as possible fodder for a new book.
I had just finished my novel Calling Major Tom, which also sprung from a real news story – that of the British astronaut Tim Peake calling a wrong number from the International Space Station at Christmas 2015 and ending up talking to a Derbyshire grandmother instead of his own family.
On the basis that truth is often stranger than fiction, I decided to once again use a news nugget as the basis for a book, employing the basic story of university students living with rest home residents as the fulcrum for the novel which eventually became, when published this week, The Growing Pains of Jennifer Ebert.
Just like Calling Major Tom wasn’t at all about the Tim Peake story, Growing Pains isn’t really about the real-life project in the Netherlands. Those things are merely the catalysts for the stories I wanted to tell.
The nursing home news story was one of those tales that gained a little traction in December two years ago, when hard news is often light and uplifting features are the order of the day, and then it dropped off the agenda just as quickly.
The care home in question is the Humanitas Deventer home in the Overijssel region of the Netherlands. It began its project in 2012, inviting six students to live in accommodation on the premises.
Setting out her ethos in a piece she wrote for Care Talk magazine, Humanitas CEO Gea Sijpkes explained, “As in most countries, students in Holland have to borrow money for studying and living. At Humanitas Deventer we offer rent-free living in return for just 30 hours of meaningful contact time spent with the elderly residents each month. Our goal is to make Humanitas Deventer the warmest and nicest place to live for the elderly.”
According to the Humanitas website, “One student hosts the evening meal in our restaurant every day of the week, but this is just an example of the great things they do for our residents. Their vibrant lives really colour the daily living of the elderly. Apart from neighbours, the students and residents became very good friends, with a deep and meaningful relationship that gives both sides a great deal of positivity and support.”
And in case you were wondering whether students would find the usual university of life lacking, with lights out at ten, then fear not: “They decide at what time they come home at night. But there is one important rule: the residents may not be disturbed.”