Bridging Generations

By on May 5, 2016 in News

A camera pans across the room, revealing the usual suspects – senior residents grouped around small tables, some in wheelchairs, creating a typical scene playing out in senior living facilities across the world.

And then, the unexpected…a young man enters, sitting down to share cakes and conversation. At that moment, it becomshutterstock_344342657es clear – this is not your typical “old folks home.”

Finland, like many industrialized nations throughout the world, is facing a severe housing problem. According to estimates, in Helsinki 90,000 renters are competing for approximately 60,000 units. This gap in availability has resulted in a brutal housing market, severely affecting young adults trying to move out and live independently. Ranked as the 16th most expensive city in the world, Helsinki is facing rapid population growth and ever-rising housing costs – leaving the city’s youth vulnerable to homelessness.

“It’s a very expensive city to live in,” 23-year-old kindergarten teacher Emil Bostrom recently explained to CNN. “If you manage to get an apartment that the city owns, it can be quite affordable. But the amount of applicants for those apartments is so high that the waiting list takes forever.”

“Youth homelessness is the sum of many parts, and there is no simple solution,” Finnish Youth Housing Association Secretary General Minna Vierikko declares. “It is essential that different actors join their forces and start seeking alternative models to solve the problem of youth homelessness.

For Miki Mielonen, Homes That Fit provides a simple solution.

Homes That Fit invites Finnish millennials to cohabitate with Helsinki senior citizens as part of a pilot program run by City of Helsinki’s Youth Department, Design Driven City, the non-profit rental housing company Alkuasunnot, and the national youth housing association Nuorisoasuntoliitto. In exchange for socializing with elderly residents, 25 eligible participants can live in discounted apartments located in the city’s Rudolf Seniors Home for one year.

“This is one solution for the youth homeless problem in Helsinki,” explains Mielonen.

Of course, the benefits encompass more than simply reduced rent. This cross-generational cohabitation presents an opportunity for young Finnish citizens to connect with, and learn from, older generations. In return, seniors find new life through these interactions.

“In a normal apartment it’s like the neighbors don’t exactly talk to you because Finnish people are shy,” explains Nineteen-year-old trainee chef Jonatan Shaya in a video about the program.

“Here they were really welcoming. I had this really heartwarming feeling that it’s good to be here.”

“I once imagined being the Moon and needing the Sun so that I could shine,” says senior resident Ritva-Liisa Salmi in the same video. “Now I kind of expect these youngsters to be that sun to me.”

Youthful Fins hoping to participate in the program face a lengthy application process. Initially, over 300 applications were submitted, with each candidate vetted to ensure they are a good fit and can participate in all manner of activities, like cooking classes or musical performance that would enhance the daily lives of the facility’s senior residents. According to Mielonen, most of the applicants were eager to sign up for more than the allotted 3-5 hrs. per week.

“There are staff to look after the elderly,” Mielonen told Yle last year. “We are looking for young people who maybe have a different perspective on everyday life, who will bring variety and recreation to the elderly residents.”

The incentives are enticing – in a city where rents rival Rome and New York City, Homes That Fit residents can lay claim to a 247sqft studio, with kitchen and balcony, for around €250 ($265) a month (about one-third of the average price of a studio apartment in the city). Though the current project involves only three participants, the goal of the Homes that Fit project is to provide housing for all of Helsinki’s younger generation by 2018.

For those accepted in the Homes That Fit senior living project, a world of insight and heartfelt connection awaits.

“The gap between the young and the old isn’t that big that we cannot be friends,” says Emil Bostrom, another one of Homes That Fits 20-something participants.

“In the bigger picture, we can show the rest of the world, and especially Finland, that this is a good thing. It’s worth investing [in programs like Homes That Fit] because young and old people can both benefit from something like this.”