The Freedom Of Retirement

Mar 6, 2014 | 0 comments

Everything in our world ages whether it be the gnarled bark of an ancient oak, its twisting limbs curled in the tight forest air, or the pitted marble of a classical Greek sculpture that is so lifelike yet lifeless. Their aged beauty is often appreciated in its own right: worn down and mature, they are beacons of wisdom and symbols of our love for the Romantic. But contemporary society does not give the same amount of wonder and respect to its own kind who may have lost some youthful colour of life: retirement homes are often bleak and lonely where those who reside within fade away instead of burn out in a celebration of love and compassion.

What people don’t realise is that those Greek masterpieces of antiquity were in fact gaudy explosions of pastel colours before they had been weathered away by rain, wind and time. We have forgotten that they were once full of life and not so lost and detached from our own reference points. Like our love in with black and white photography, we can become enamoured with a certain image and don’t realise its lack of life. To carry on the analogy, it so remains that we can give a new palette to something already beautiful and lived.

With dementia said to double by 2030, there is no cure to this debilitating disease that causes one to lose track of the real word once getting on in years. It leaves people isolated. Hogewey, a small community of around 150 residents in the Netherlands, seeks to establish a new era for elderly care that breaks down the walls between the old and the young. While hearts will still break as the minds of fathers and mothers slowly slip away under the influence of Alzheimer’s and the like, innovative strategies speared by founder Yvonne van Amerongen aim not to cure but to facilitate the effects of an aging mind.

Yvonne’s profession has always been caring for the elderly. Before she started Hogewey, she was a manager in a care home. Yet her inspiration ironically came with the death of her father and the relief felt that he didn’t have to live under hospital care. She was so grateful that he did not pass away in a nursing home amidst uniforms, wires and wards that she conceived a whole new system. Indeed, her vision, now a reality, was to create an environment which was centred on a shared feeling of common humanity.

It is the collaboration of patients and caregivers that makes this place unique. In Hogewey, residents live in a village which doubles as real life. There are grocery stores, restaurants, parks, banks. All the attendants, be them bankers, grocers, chefs or cleaners, are actually specially trained to deal with dementia. Yet there is such a miraculous difference between being gently guided by someone incognito compared to an authority figure dressed in uniform. Because life and perspective is so often determined by our interaction with others, it stands to reason that this feels genuine and pure. Backstage and centre stage together are making this one of the greatest shows on earth: it’s the Truman Show for the elderly without the dehumanising, voyeuristic pleasure enjoyed by the antagonists of the film. It allows residents to live as much of a normal life as they can. And they seem happier for it. They can make mistakes, be rude, be kind, walk where they like and visit whomever they wish. Doors are always unlocked. They eat better, exercise more and take less medication. It’s a constant hub of creation and life’s stories are crafted by those who live within its walls.

Special attention is paid to how the residents were living before staying at Hogewey. They are put in rooms which reflect best their previous lifestyles. For example, different privileges and different styles await a former businesses woman as opposed to perhaps a more rustic wallpaper and cutlery set for an artisan or farmer. Everything from the crockery to the colour theme are designed to exude familiarity and comfort. The town is reserved for those with severe dementia, requiring 24 hour care so carers are never far away to remind patients about things they forget or who they are. It’s a sad yet at the same time uplifting story.

The actual buzz of living that exists is perhaps the most heart-warming thing that one can take away from Hogewey. The elderly roam the streets with the freedom of a life unshackled from their illness. Here they are alive in a mythical world which is far more real than a hospital ward. There is still some degree of a controlled environment. But the experience is more akin to holding hands than pushing somebody down a specific path. Their lives are defined by our love, compassion and humanity. It is up to ourselves to recolour faded lives with new experiences. Our mothers and fathers and grandparents deserve a peaceful retirement in the hands of those we can trust and where freedom and care is constantly created through living not simply surviving.