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By Christine Simon

In Helsinki, Finland, with a rising housing shortage for the city‘s youth, the Rudolf Seniors Home is currently offering three students housing for reduced rent in exchange for spending quality time with the elderly.

Mikko Sinisalo stands in the hallway in front of Raja‘s door. He rings the bell. The door opens and she welcomes him in. He joins her at the table and she offers him orange juice. Raja Tiili, 68, is in a wheelchair and Mikko helps her lifting her head up. Raja smiles. She tells her story. She came to the elderly home around three years ago directly from the hospital, where she was being treated for rheumatism. ‘‘It‘s good to have the nurses here to help me”, Raja says, ‘‘because I couldn't live by myself anymore.”

Raja is happy about the students moving into the seniors home. In her opinion, they are clever and nice. She likes spending time with them. Usually they just have a chat and they help her if she needs something but, unfortunately, they don‘t always have the time. Raja has always wanted to become a teacher, but she liked her job at the bank so she never did. When she was young, she also worked at an elderly home in Hamburg, Germany.

In late 2013, the project ‘‘Oman Muotoinen Koti” (A Home That Fits) started. The main idea behind it was to prevent youth homelessness and give students in Helsinki a place to stay. The homelessness among students in Helsinki is a huge problem and rent for apartments in the city is incredibly high.

The solution for this problem was to let students between the ages of 18-25 move into a seniors home under the condition of spending at least three to five hours per week with their elderly neighbours. They have their own apartment with a kitchen and a bathroom and pay up to 250€ in rent, which is almost half the amount someone would pay for an apartment in town. As a result of this project, there is a decrease in loneliness among the elderly people and the students. After one year, they had the funding and help from the city to test this project in the Rudolf Seniors Home, which is located on the Laajasalo Island in eastern Helsinki.

Death as a relief

The idea for this project came from an elderly home in Deventer, Netherlands, where six students live without paying rent, as long as they spend around thirty hours per month with their neighbours. That project was more focused on the fact that elderly people are lonely and integrating the generations can help alleviate that. In January 2016, the first students moved into the Rudolf Seniors Home. When they posted the announcement on Facebook, 312 applications came in. Mikko is one of the first participants. At 25 years old, he is studying political science at the University of Helsinki and he is currently in his first year. Mikko saw an advertisement of the apartment so he applied.

‘‘On the living arrangement”, he said, ‘‘It gives you some perspective in life that you wouldn’t get otherwise.” For instance, Mikko talks with them about dying but as a peaceful transition, not as something they fear. ‘‘It would be nice to get away from this world someday, is what they tell me, but not as a sad thing. Some of them are over 90. They have seen a lot of things in life.”

Yet still, other elderly people don‘t want company. They‘d rather be alone. But most would be happier if students would spend more time with them. ‘‘It would be good to have more students living in this building,” Mikko said, ‘‘because there are so many elderly people and only three students so there isn’t enough time to see all of them. It’s nice because some of the elders say it’s different with us than with the nurses because, of course, they are working here, and we’re just the neighbours, so we meet and talk to them. That gives them a feeling of a normal communication.”

Mikko has a housing contract for one year but it may be extended. He hasn‘t figured out how it will continue yet because he is turning 26 this year and the project is officially meant only for 18-25 years old.

Sharing experiences together

Tyyne Vähänissi is 94 years old and has been living in the elderly home for more than 10 years now. First, she moved in with her husband. But when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer‘s he moved to a specialized facility next door. For four years now, she‘s been on her own. Tyyne thinks it’s wonderful that the students are living here. ‘‘It’s nice to meet them but it’s sad that they don’t have that much time to visit me,” Tyyne says. ‘‘It brings some kind of change in here.” Tyyne loves to eat out and last summer she ate pizza in the garden with the students. ‘‘It was a wonderful day,” she says.

Nowadays she doesn’t really join any group activities but everyday she goes out for a walk regardless the weather. ‘‘The best thing is that I can talk about other topics with the younger ones, because with the older ones we‘re mostly talking about how many pills we were taking that day and things like that,‘‘ Tyyne said, ‘‘so it‘s nice to talk about different things.”

New students arrive

Serafina Eljaala, 18, moved in on December 1st of last year and, so far, she likes living in the Rudolf Seniors Home. She is the fifth student living in the home and is still going to high school.

Serafina moved away from home because she didn‘t like it there and has many issues with her parents. She discovered the project through a friend on Facebook. In her opinion, it is different living in here than in an apartment in the city. ‘‘People in Finland are so quiet. They never talk, they never smile,” she said, ‘‘In my own house before, I didn’t know any of my neighbours. I didn’t know their names, because they never talked to me. But here, I know my neighbours. They always smile at me and we stop to talk for a minute if we run into each other. That’s nice.”

With the elderly people, she said, they usually paint, bake or sing together. Once, they even went to a jazz concert. Serafina is the only student who also visits some of the elderly people in the building next to where she‘s living. Here, a lot of them have memory problems. Usually Serafina goes to visit them with a staff member. ‘‘This [experience] is very rare,” Serafina says, ‘‘not every 18-year-old spends their afternoons singing with elderly people.”

Fading Memories

Serafina sometimes visits Hilkaa Valkonen, who is 86 years old. Unfortunately, Hilkaa can‘t always remember her. She‘s been living in the elderly home for about 20 years, and most of the time, she walks around alone or with others.

When Hilkaa was young she used to work in different places during the war and after that she was working on a farm, taking care of animals. Hilkaa says that she is actually just waiting for death to come because, to her, life isn‘t that beautiful anymore when you‘re old, but maybe the young people can make it better.