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Youths living with the elderly – a Finnish example

A pilot program in Finland sees a small group of young people live together with seniors in a Helsinki home, in return for spending a number of hours a week with their elderly neighbours.

The project aims to prevent homelessness in young people by helping them with secure and affordable housing, while at the same time increasing social interactions of the senior residents. 

Project manager Miki Mielonen, flew in from Finland to share the success of the project with delegates at the 2016 Leading Age Services Australia (LASA) National Congress held on the Gold Coast last week. 

Mr Mielonen explains that Helsinki is an expensive city with long waiting lists and high rents which many young people can’t afford.

“Helsinki is a city of young adults and senior citizens,” Mr Mielonen explains.

“Loneliness amongst seniors is a bit problem for us, and so is loneliness amongst young people. That’s why we thought this would be a good solution for both.”

The co-housing arrangement is modelled after a Dutch example where students live in a nursing home and spend time socialising with the residents.

The focus is on informal interaction between the young people and the residents

Rudolf Seniors Home is an old apartment building with stairs, making it a difficult structure for seniors to move around in. Because of this there were 3 vacant studio apartments which seemed the ideal fit for the project. 

Early 2015 the City of Helsinki started a recruitment process on Facebook, which received an overwhelming 312 applications. 

“We didn’t know if this kind of model would be interesting for young people in Helsinki. We were very surprised to get so many applications,” according to Mr Mielonen. 

Applicants were between 18 and 25 years of age, had housing difficulties and an interest in spending time with the elderly. A minimum of 5 hours a week would have to be spent socialising with the seniors in the home. 

After an initial selection process 22 were interviewed, with input from residents, and eventually 3 young people were chosen. They moved in in January of this year. 

Mr Mielonen explains that they learnt from the Dutch example not to have any rules and to focus on informal interaction between the young people and the residents. 

“We do co-planning together with the staff, the residents and the young people. We don’t have specific rules or a specific program. We think informal interaction is the best way to do this.”

There is a manifest of good housing in place and a focus on wellbeing of both the residents and the young people. 

“They may watch television together, have a chat in the laundry room or do activities like painting or go for a walk,” says Mr Mielonen.

The response from the young people has been very positive, saying they felt very welcome

He says the main result from the first 9 months of the project is that the feeling of isolation of older people has decreased significantly. 

“They have said that they feel more normal and the young people are like a peer group. They have more in common than you would think. 

“Older residents have more social contacts and the atmosphere in the house has changed.“ 

The response from the young people has been very positive, saying they felt very welcome and enjoy the time they spend together with their elderly neighbours. However Mr Mielonen says they have reported to feel the pressure of not being able to spend enough time with each resident.

Rudolf Seniors Home houses 134 seniors and adding only three young people to the mix has highlighted that there should be more young people in the senior home to optimise the social interaction opportunities. 

Other areas of development, according to Mr Mielonen, are that young people should meet with care workers more often and more structured and intensive evaluation is needed. 

The ‘Homes that Fit’ model is spreading through Finland with another few cities implementing similar projects. 

Mr Mielonen’s advice to organisations considering an intergenerational co-housing program is to choose young people who don’t work or study in the social or health fields as this can blur the lines with care staff in the homes. 

“Let the participants choose the most suitable way of interaction, be flexible in the amount of time young people spend with seniors, and prepare them for sad and unpleasant incidents that can happen in the house." 

In the future Mr Mielonen expects housing units to be smaller in Finland and he would like to build up a model that sees young people live together with older people in their private homes. 

“Living at home is a priority for old people and there is still a growing need for homes for young people," he says.

“Mixed housing solutions should be considered in the planning and construction stage of aged care homes."

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