Away from misery island

Professor Dr Hans Becker, CEO of Humanitas Foundation in the Netherlands, shares that away from misery island is the way to go. He is a driving force behind the concept of ‘Apartments for Life’, Agelessvoice finds out more about this concept from him:

Can you share the ‘Apartments for Life’ concept?

Fifteen years ago, the Dutch older people started demanding an alternative to old-style nursing homes and hostels. They wanted to be able to go on living independently and stay in their own communities for as long as they could even if their health declined and they could no longer get around.

‘Apartments for Life’ is a response to this challenge, pioneered by the Humanitas Foundation in Rotterdam in the mid-1990s. It began with 350 apartments in three complexes in 1995 and has really taken off.

So how does it work?

Human happiness – that is the business we are in – is not about ‘cure and care’. There is not much to cure when someone has Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or even arthritis in the knees. The care elements have to be there, but they should be in the background. The ‘Apartments for Life’ philosophy has four basic values:

  • Boss of your own life.
  • Use it or lose it.
  • Extended family approach.
  • A yes culture.

The Humanitas approach is that residents should be the boss of their own life, with their own front door so they are truly a resident, not just ‘staying’ in a room that belongs to an institution. The Humanitas model for ‘Apartments for Life’ includes carefully designed apartment complexes, lived in and partly run by independent older people, and offering services on a needs basis. These include medical, daily care, recreational, educational and social, up to and including nursing home-type care.

The apartments (minimum 72 sqm, three rooms – the social norm for building requirements in the Netherlands), may be purchased, or rented. The apartments are designed in such a way that – even with a wheelchair – the sink (variable height sinks), the electricity cupboard, and the letterbox, are within reach, and barriers such as thresholds, narrow doorways, awkwardly opening French doors, etc, are avoided. Living arrangements, as a total living concept, is not the only contributing factor to an individual’s happiness, a sense of “belonging” is also crucial and through our approach, we have achieved this.

How many complexes do you have now and how many more are in the works?

We now have 3,000 apartments for life, scattered over 20 complexes in the Netherlands. The total number of residents are about 5,000 now and will increase by 1,000 by the end of the year.

What are some lessons you have learned in implementing the concept over the years?

The “inner village square” is as important as the apartments themselves because it allows people to interact with each other and thus have an extended family in addition to independence. This is an area on the lower level of the building where people can meet people, mingle and share – dine in the restaurant, eat apple pie or have a drink at the bar, go to the hairdresser, the pedicure or the beauty parlour, visit the animal garden with the grandchildren, the sculpture garden, play bridge together, participate in volunteer work, go to the fitness for a daily work-out, or visit the reminiscence museum.

Naturally, the old ‘cure and care’ elements, such as personal care, nursing, ergo therapy, a psychologist, welfare worker, dietician, indoor physician, speech therapist, and activity training attendance, are important. These services are also to be found in the village square. But on no account should these elements dominate the scene; so, no walking around in a white coat, no jungle of sign posts, no abundance of rules and regulations, no typical institute furniture, no fluorescent lighting, etc.

What are some of the trends developing in housing for the elderly?

I see the housing trends allowing people to be more independent so they can do things for themselves.

What was it like for the Dutch older people before the ‘Apartment for Life’ concept took off?

Small rooms in an institution with many rules and obligations. Not the way, older people should be living.

How is it overall beneficial to have such a concept?

The apartments provide the sense of still being in control of one’s life with the inner village square providing the sense of belonging of an extended family. The complex provides the opportunity to use one’s functions by being active in a warm and sheltered atmosphere with the help of other clients, volunteers and family. The total approach provides a feeling of happiness for not only clients, but also family, staff and volunteers. Because the residents are happy and well-cared for, they will need less attention and hence costs are lowered by about 10 to 20 percent.

Has the Dutch Government been supportive of this concept?

Yes, many ministers, the prime minister and even the queen have visited our complexes.

How does it differ from the US concept of cohousing, which I understand is slowly taking off there?

It is a more normal apartment building with many amenities in the scope of well-being.

Have you seen the ‘Apartments for Life’ concept take off or replicated in other countries, including Asia? What advice would you give to other countries who are keen to do something similar?

Yes, here and there you see parts of Apartments for Life but I did not find the integrated approach we have created anywhere else. Happiness does not come from ‘cure and care’ but more from well-being and housing.

I really like your quote: “To be a person amongst people, you need to meet people, mingle, share something – dine in the café, eat apple pie, or have a drink in the bar, go to the hairdresser, the pedicure or the beauty parlour, visit the animal garden with the grandchildren, sculpture garden, play bridge together, participate in volunteer work. The attention needs to be taken away from people’s handicaps and instead focus attention on what people can do and what they enjoy. Constant focus on medical problems will cause what is left of a positive image of life to disappear, and institutions for the elderly will degenerate into what my father calls misery islands.” I guess this all is a mindset change and we need to figure out how to change it. Do you think this concept would still be successful as the younger generations’ age?

Yes, even more successful for the younger generations, because they are even more inclined to privacy.


* Professor Dr Hans Becker will be a speaker at the 3rd Ageing Asia Investment Forum in Singapore in April.




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