“You’d like it in ‘THE HOME’…” Flik said, doing his best to overemphasize the word, with rolling eyes and finger scare quotes. Flik is in the Community College. He’s…um, short. OK, he’s a Little Person. And he covers up for it with a persona resembling Annoying Orange.
We tease each other. I don't talk about what Flik means, except that it's a midget joke. To him, I’m amazingly old.
“Actually, I’ve been there.” I said. “And I did not like it one bit. There’s nothing to do, the rooms are too small, the place smells like piss and old people, and the staff treats you like an idiot.”
“It’s got free food.”
“Which is lousy.” I laughed. “Listen, the women in my family all went mad before they died. I kept all my favorite dolls so that when I’m old, I’ll have all my friends with me.” Or I might be in somewhere like Hogewey, a village within the city of Weesp, in the Netherlands.
The houses are cheerful and comfortable, with seven different themes to cater to the differing needs of various residents: Traditional (middle class, mostly women), Urban (city dwellers), Indian (people who grew up in Indonesia or the Dutch Colonies), Cultural (for those from an artistic, bohemian, or academic background), Aristocratic (or "Gooise", the Dutch version of Beverly Hills/The New York/Connecticut Gold Coast), "Christlike" (for devout keepers of all faiths) and Home-style (for artisans and farmers). Each one has a different layout, decor, menu, and group activities for six to eight residents. The staff takes on different personae: “cousins” or “neighbors” for Homestyle houses, “servants” in the Indonesian and Aristocratic homes. No one wears scrubs, or anything that looks overtly "medical", outside of places specifically designated as clinics. Menus are varied: good solid Dutch apple pie and pea soup for workmen, vegetarian and "lite" styles for Cultural and Urban houses, curries and rice for Indian, Classical French for Aristocrats. A restaurant provides variety, and everyone is encouraged to make friends, and go visiting, for any meal. Each resident has one (large) bedroom, and shares the living room, dining room and kitchen. Everyone (in theory) pitches in on light housekeeping, cooking, and the general routine, with the "Traditional" house priding itself on being "neat as a pin". (This is Holland, after all. On the other hand, they're known for amazing birthday parties.) The Urban House looks, scarily, like Mom’s attempts at 60’s pop decorating, the Aristocrat’s, somewhat more calmingly, like my grandmother’s. (Lest you think that the Aristocrats live in a literal mansion, the director points out that all the houses have exactly the same budget.) The Religious home is quiet and monastic, and food is quite simple, and the house specialty is hot chocolate and cookies, served after church. The Indian residents find themselves in a flowing kitchen/dining/living space similar to an Indonesian bungalow, surrounded by Indonesian art, music and smells, and Artisan’s homes open to the kitchen, not the living room. Even though I wasn't raised that way, I'd choose the "Cultural" house for myself: it's just like being over at an old Yale professor's house, and has a lot of books and stuff to look at.(It's also famed for having the best breakfasts.)
There are no locks on any door, you can go walking any time of the day or night if you feel restless, even visit other residents, except the last door in the exit, which, you’ll be told is “not working”. “Try another door," the staffer at the desk opposite will say. “It’s being fixed.” Meaning, of course, you’ll be back in the village. Windows face outward, and have been reported as being in “a residential neighborhood”. According to Street View of Google Earth, they have the scintillating view of a) a high-rise apartment, b) an Opel dealership and a gas station, c) a hospital, and d)a soccer field, which looks positively boring compared to the epic coolness within. Meanwhile, field trips outside take people swimming, to concerts (Weesp has a lot of them), and to the Indonesian Club, where, presumably, old plantation owners can eat rijstafel, slam back gin, and bitch about Sukarno.
Other than the 23 residences and some field trips, there’s plenty to see and to do: there’s a central square with a bandshell, several restaurants, quiet parks, a grocery, and an movie theater. Residents can join in any one or several of 30 clubs. There’s no price on any items in the grocery store, other than the barcode. If a resident happens to walk out without paying or makes nonsensical purchases, a sharp-eyed staffer will return the items once they’re home. Everyone is watched. Every resident has at least one staffer within sight or hearing at all times. The grocery clerk, the barman, even the ticket taker at the cinema is trained as a caregiver. Welcome to Hogewey, the Netherlands’ trailblazing managed care facility for severe dementia.
The average age is 83. The average stay, 3.5 years, most often terminated by death, one year later than more “conventional” care. “Carers" do not lie to the patients: if asked straight on, they’ll tell them they’re being treated for an illness, and yes, they’re in a hospital. “Mostly they forget in a few days.” Otherwise, the residents make their own decisions: how to spend their days, what to wear, eat, or do, which people to join or to avoid. Alcohol is served at dinner in some houses, and is available (next to the adult diapers) at the grocery in any case. There’s even some interaction with the outside world: the restaurants are open to the public, as is the auditorium/movie theater, and helps to fund expenses. Overall, the cost of keeping each resident is about $7000 a month, which is actually less than most "conventional" rest homes, and is covered by National Health insurance. Medications are downplayed to control behavior, in favor of rational solutions, and patients are less violent and more compliant in general.
The problem with senility is not that you’re forever locked in the world of your childhood and early twenties, it’s that every so often, you’re not. And there are people who aren’t in “second childhood” even though they piss your pants and need a pair of tongs to wipe their ass. And what you don’t want to deal with are people smirking about it, even though you never (in your memory) thought them to be inferior. You want to go ‘outside’, even though you might tumble, you want to do something, even though what you can ‘do’ is severely limited. The world just doesn't make sense anymore, even though you were once able to be a lover, a parent, and have a job. (Having seen two women through the process has schooled me.) In Hogewey, the elderly can have life go on, pretty much like it always has, and they're (reasonably) happy.
Yes, people have likened it to Disney World, Celebration, Winvian, and the Truman Show. Philosophically, the questions multiply. Perhaps the Cultural Houses might come to a consensus on this problem. Better, I long for a group cookbook, a music mix, a Deviant Art group...
At any case, a noble enterprise. When in Amsterdam, take a break from the pipe and the art, and spend a day in Weesp. Enjoy the chocolate, the windmills, and the Historical District. And then, give back by sharing a dinner with its living history, the Netherland's oldest residents. You might even like "the Home".