Humanitas: not just a ground-breaking ‘healthcare model’ but a whole new approach to community design

My interview with Jurriën Mentink, a 23-year-old resident of the Dutch care home

Jurriën Mentink is a resident of the Dutch care home Humanitas, which provides free accommodation to students in exchange for time spent with older residents. Like many of the best ideas, the Humanitas project was born from a single experiment; when CEO Gea Sijpkes suggested inviting a student to live at the care home. The positive effect on mood and culture was undeniable; and in the four years since, the centre has become a fully integrated living space for six students and 160 older residents.

At first glance, Humanitas would seem to be a clever solution to a Europe-wide demographic challenge. However, as one delves deeper, it becomes clear that this is not just a replicable ‘healthcare model’ but a whole new approach to community-building. As one of the original student residents, Jurriën Mentink says he has always been invited to have a hand in building the community; with innovations happening naturally and “by surprise” rather than being “managed”.

The problem with the post-war model of care is that it was conceived of with a very small population of older people in mind. In Holland, as in the UK, this population has exploded and there is an increasingly precarious economy around it. If this is a question for systems change — and it certainly is — of how much value are discussions on private versus state funding, or indeed any other top-down design in providing a solution? Jurriën recently convinced me that we make our first mistake when we even conceive of the issue as a ‘problem’.

“After the war, nursing homes just sprang out of the ground. People were just put in them, and this had the effect of separating the elderly from the rest of society. In Holland, this costs the state a lot of money and so there is a sense of urgency around transitioning from this out-dated model. This situation is not actually a ‘problem’ — it’s just that everyone is seeing it as one. People think elderly residents should just be ‘taken care’ of, as if they don’t have any more value for society. They could have value and should have — I want those things back.”

The six students at Humanitas have become a team and agree on new housemates “just like any other student house” — providing an important continuity in the younger population. According to Jurriën, the student residents who failed to work out were those who understood their participation as a “transactional arrangement”; without realising the value it had for their own growth and development.

“If you recognise that you can learn a lot from the older people, it’s easy to live here. Otherwise, you just don’t fit in. The 160 residents here are all people with their own stories, needs and behaviour. Nine out of ten students are going too fast for them, so you need to slow down to make the connection. The values and culture they have are different — you have to enter their space and not think about your own truth or reality.”

There is no better evidence of Jurriën’s claim than in his personal journey over four years at Humanitas. Having started a university degree in urban design at 18, he recently switched track to business management — a decision based on the conviction of his unique life experience:

“After a while, and because of living here — I got it. If you’re going to design, you need to feel it. I’ve seen lots of studies about urban design, wellbeing and healthcare — but to me it’s just looking at a square, and in that square is a room. I’m far more interested in what’s happening in that room — what kind of connection there is between people. Too often, spaces are designed and then they put people in; but that’s not the way to do it — it’s always the people that give you something to design. Most designers just don’t get it.”

Humanitas’ founding principle — and only rule — is to be “a good neighbour”, and this has already extended outside the walls of its unique community. According to Jurriën:

“We try to be a backbone of the neighbourhood itself — if people have problems they know they can come to us. These walls are otherwise a prison. People can go out but people don’t want to come in because they don’t know what’s inside. That’s what we try to organise — for people in our neighbourhood to come here and see that everything is really nice.”

This approach has already resulted in communal vegetable and flower gardens, where residents of the low-income neighbourhood surrounding the centre are always welcomed. Humanitas also supports neighbours with special needs who have now become self-sufficient, simply by partaking in the routine of the community. The philosophy is simple: all suggestions are considered as long as the older residents benefit from it — “It’s all about saying yes to everything that knocks on our door.”

Considering his innovative thinking about urban design, it is clear that Jurriën is in exactly the right place:

“I have ideas about building communities for everyone — maybe you can build a primary school next to elderly residents and it just works. Not only that, maybe even a nightclub or a cinema! Elderly people can drink — it’s really funny! They are too often mistaken and misunderstood.”

At every stage of our discussion, it is clear to me that Humanitas has built itself through attitude and culture; rather than any kind of plan or strategy. On this point, it would be remiss not to mention the significance of Gea Sipjkes’ leadership, which has been inspirational for Jurriën and many others:

“Gea…she’s got balls! Other people think through a project first, and perhaps get dissuaded. She starts, and then solves difficulties along the way. It’s a whole different strategy and she is really open to stuff. The community just built itself — the organisation takes the approach of keeping its hands off. That’s what Humanitas is all about; they don’t want the organisation in the way of residents or staff. If there’s something wrong they’ll be there to support us, but if things are going fine they will just let it be. Other healthcare organisations don’t do this; they are clinging to the old system.”

To return to the frequently cited ‘problem’ of post-war healthcare, I am convinced after speaking with Jurriën that we have to go well beyond such macro discussions on care — the kind that limit the scope of a solution by viewing it as merely an economic problem. What’s clear is that a whole new worldview is required — one in which the necessary act of ‘slowing down’ means living empathically and openly. How else can we go about deconstructing models of care that are based upon segregation, hierarchy, and — all too often — infantilisation?

“Relationships should be horizontal and that’s what we have to bring back. It’s about improving their — and also my own — wellbeing. A care organisation has to let go and listen to the vision of residents and see where they want to go — not just go with its own vision. Without the residents, you are not an organisation!”

After my conversation with Jurriën, I am left with a strong impression of how his experience at Humanitas has influenced his own creative development. It’s not just his conviction that a “widening of perspectives” is important — it is that he realises it’s literally the most valuable work of self-growth. I wondered at times whether he has not already learned all he needs from a formal ‘urban design’ education and arrived at that idealised artistic point: where one learns the rules, only in order to break them. For Jurriën, it could be that this pivotal moment has come earlier than for most, and that the practice of empathy and ‘slowing down’ has taken him deep into the heart of conceptual design.

You can hear more about Humanitas at Meaning conference in Brighton, UK on 16 November 2017 — where Jurriën Mentink will join a line-up of diverse speakers exploring the role of business in creating a more sustainable, equitable and humane world. Find out more via the event website.

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