Humanitas: a home with a difference

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Guest blog by Ellie Robinson Carter

Humanitas Deventer is a world-renowned care home in Holland where students live for free to support the older people who live there. Humanitas has been praised for its forward-thinking approach to finding innovative ways of supporting older people as well as its Adelbold project which supports younger people with additional needs to gain independence and self-confidence.

Humanitas accommodates six students who study at the local university and live alongside the residents. Students live there for free in exchange for spending time with the older people living at the home. On one evening of the week each student hosts a bread meal for the residents, preparing the dining area and food for around 17 residents to enjoy. They also spend time on a more adhoc basis, having coffee, playing games, going for food.

For three weeks in September 2018 I lived at Humanitas as part of an artist residency “Hello Neighbour!” funded by the Arts Council’s International Development Fund. During this period I spent time with my neighbour taking part in various day-to-day activities including going to the shops, making dinner, celebrating birthdays, painting in the garden and playing Dutch games.

The business of happiness

2012 saw a massive reduction of funding available for care homes in Holland, at the time Gea Spjikes – manager of Humanitas realised that she had to think about things a little differently. She told me “here, we are in the business of happiness. We don’t want to get bogged down in everyone having satisfactory care because that should be a given, as humans we should all have that in place. We want to focus on the happiness of our residents, their quality of lives, which is where the idea of introducing students came into play.” She thought to herself; what is it that we, a care home, occupying a dated building, with a lot of older people, can offer? What are our strengths? What are our qualities? She realised that the answer to this question is time. Older people aren’t in a rush, they take their time, and for them, it is the little things that make up their day and matter most. They have time to pay attention to things, to listen, to talk, to play games, to eat together.

Student pushing resident in wheelchair

With student housing prices on the rise, younger people having less disposable income, and there being a pressure for young people to live far away from their families, she felt that Humanitas had something unique to offer. “What if we offer students free accommodation in exchange for them volunteering some of their time to spend with our residents?” says Spjikes. Humanitas began by introducing one student, then two, then three, and now they have six – and a long waiting list to match! Gea said that the difference was immediate and quite astonishing. It brought back the twinkle in the older people’s eyes. Suddenly their conversations had changed from “my knee hurts today” or “I have to take X many number of pills a day” to “does he have a girlfriend? I think she spent the night here last night!”

Hello Neighbour

So who was my neighbour? How did this work? On arriving at Humanitas I expected that I would have a person assigned to me to support or that it would fall naturally depending on who was opposite or next to me in the hallway. However, soon after arriving I realised that this wasn’t the case: speaking to Sores (student and my translator) he said: “It’s organic really, like it is with people of our own age. There are some people you connect with on a deeper level, more than others, and in time you realise who those are.”

I met Joke on my third day at Humanitas. We ended up spending time together with Sores and a few other residents who live on the bottom floor. They were described as at the “heart of the house” because they are often gathering in the entrance area, saying “hallo!” and “does! (which means bye in Dutch) as people came and went. As part of my residency Hello Neighbour! Joke and I spent a chunk of time together each day, sometimes just us and other times with other residents or students too. Each day we chose a theme to capture our experiences together, these included food, light, music and Joke’s favourite colour – blue. The idea was that each theme provided us with a task to complete together, a topic to discuss, whilst documenting our unfolding relationship and surroundings. For example, when documenting the colour blue on day 14, we approached workers wearing blue, documented Joke’s special objects that were blue, took photographs of the skies through the windows, and the carpets in the hallways. The idea is that these themes provide different perspectives on the people and place.

Ellie and Joke at Humanitas

Ellie and her neighbour Joke

The nature effect

Humanitas has two big gardens which can be seen from many of the residents’ rooms.  When you’re inside Humanitas you never lose sight of nature and, because of this, you never lose awareness of the outside world. This is something I was particularly struck by; people are always going in and out of Humanitas. It is situated next to a cluster of shops, including Lidl, Alberhein (supermarket), a café, pharmacy and florist, people therefore can wander around and be in the outside world and residents remain connected with their community.

I noticed too how much the gardens are a hub of activity, a place where people go to sit, to talk, to pick flowers, to weed, to walk around. During my time there I delivered some of our nature-based activities including Painting by Nature, Nature Palettes, Spotters Cards, Cyanotypes and Texture Rubbings.

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At Humanitas, there is a dementia unit which sits on the other side of the garden to where the students and other residents live. Piebe (pictured above) lives at Humanitas with his wife Juance, who spends her days in the dementia unit, but then comes back to their shared apartment at the end of each day. He often spoke to me about how hard he finds it, not being able to spend more time with his wife. However, I noticed how spending time in the garden made it possible for them to spend more time together, his wife didn’t get so anxious and frequently commented on how beautiful the garden looked. Piebe was able to go and pick pears and apples, to share with the group, whilst we all took it in turns to push the wheelchair and talk to his wife about the flowers in the garden. It was great to see how nature was providing them with a space to be together and be mutually beneficial.


Ellie Robinson Carter works for Sensory Trust on a range of projects involving older people with dementia and the creative arts.

In January 2019 Ellie will be returning to Humanitas to display the books created as part of this residency. This exhibition will then come to Falmouth, Cornwall in February 2019 – more information to follow!

Find out more about Humanitas and their work

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