What can an art residency in a Utrecht old folks' home teach us about intergenerational living?

Caroline Derveaux-Berté's workshop at The Sofia. Image: Jade French.

The city of Utrecht might be compact but it’s a bustling centre of student life, cycling obsessives and innovative social design. With social care in the UK in something of a crisis, perhaps this small Dutch city can offer an alternative view on how young and old can reconnect and provide each other with a better quality of life.

Earlier this year, student accommodation in the city centre reached a saturation point, with a growing number of students and early careerists finding it hard to rent in the city. So, it came as a surprise when The Sofia, an elderly care home, stepped in with a solution. It owners began to offer space in its empty spare wing out as student accommodation. The only catch? The new residents had to integrate with the elderly folk who already lived there.

Around the same time, artists and NGO workers Linda Rosink and Barbara van Beers were looking for office space for their project, Artshake. They approached The Sofia and immediately realised that they could make a difference by setting up an artist residency that would organise activities and help people meet one another.

It might sound simple, but art can be intimidating. The first residency, with Italian artist Mattias Campo Dall'Orto was an experiment. Luckily, his mix of photo-realistic portraits and a huge mural painted on the side of the building helped ease up those people who felt they were “not arty”. He also paved the way for some more abstract work from French artist Caroline Derveaux-Berté.

This distinctly European flavour is a deliberate choice. The artists can’t speak Dutch and communicating with the elderly residents about upcoming events and art projects can prove tricky. However, this communication gap also gently forces the students to help with translation and spreading information. In this simple way, the elderly and young people begin to speak on common ground.

By inserting the artist as an uncertain element between the two generations, Artshake provides a talking point for the residents, asking them to get excited – or even critical – about the art together. Beyond this, the building is becoming a social hub for the neighbourhood in general. During my stay, I saw a full-blown orchestra rehearsing with the residents, and Barbara and Linda are keen to implement more art workshops, yoga, and choirs into the space.

At the most recent art residency, Caroline Derveaux-Berté's work on childhood memories was channeled through abstract stories. On one morning, we spent time with 66-year-old Marianne, painting walls and listening to disco. Once we had finished a couple of panels, we ripped the masking tape off – an act which really felt like a collaborative effort. Marianne took us to see the portrait Mattias had drawn of her on the previous residency, explaining how she found the artist's intriguing. “It’s like we’re creating new memories as well,” says Caroline, “Sometimes you can look at the past and become sad, but actually by creating beautiful moments, in the present, you realise life doesn’t just finish at 66.”

The Sofia doesn’t feel like a typical care home. There’s an on-site hairdresser, a games room and coffee on tap by the receptionist. People are encouraged to loiter and chat. There’s a restaurant that wouldn’t look too out of place on Shoreditch High Street, with mason jar light bulbs and new geometric signs all around the buildings. With a fresh take on the care home, Artshake brings a sense of youth into the building showing how older generations can be exposed to new trends.

Now it feels like a home for everyone – but it might not have always been this way. During a transitional period over the summer, the first artist left and Linda noticed that “all the rules were gone. Some of the elderly people took advantage – sitting outside in front of the restaurant and having parties until 2am. Then you had the young people trying to sleep!” In fact, for Caroline the “older people are the young ones – always teaching me Dutch swearwords, drinking and talking through movies. The elderly seem to be getting a rebellious streak back.”

This inter-generational behaviour “swap” suggests that the social impact of a project like this isn’t always easy to measure empirically. When we tried to encourage some elderly people to help us paint, some had excuses: lunch to go to, family to see, dogs to walk. Even though that meant we were left holding our rollers, the power of choice can’t be underestimated. A lot of the original, elderly residents often felt like choices were being made for them; now, Linda notes that the power of saying ‘no I’m busy’ will “empower the elderly people, and show the younger students what it is like. Someday, we will be old. We have to ask: how would we like to live and be treated?”

 As Caroline put it: “It’s about owning the walls. They are the simplest part of where you live but they can also keep you separate.” By breaking down the generational barriers, Artshake has proven that even the smallest element of choice can have a big impact on daily life. By inserting something new, engaging and interesting into elderly care we can begin to close the gaps between the generations.

Just seeing the interaction between different generations is enough for Linda: “As long as we see young and old talking to each other in the restaurant or saying ‘hi’ in the corridors, that’s all we want. It’s very simple.”


All pictures courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

Southern Rail is resuming full service – but how did the company's industrial relations get so bad?

A happy day last August. Image: Getty.

“I cannot simply operate outside the law, however much I might be tempted to, however much people might want me to,” a pained Chris Grayling said on TV on 13 December. As the first all-out drivers’ strike shut down the entirety of Southern’s network, the transport secretary insisted to interviewers he was powerless in this struggle between unions and a private rail operator.

But rewind to February and Grayling’s Department for Transport was putting out a very different message. “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support,” Peter Wilkinson, the Department’s passenger services director, told a public meeting:

“We have got to break them. [Train drivers] have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place. They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Wilkinson was forced to apologise for his comments. But when Southern began to implement driver-only operation, replacing conductors with non-safety-critical “on-board supervisors”, unions weren’t convinced by claims it was all about improved customer service. “This is a national fight – we’re not going to let them pick off one group of workers at a time,” a spokesman for the rail union RMT said in April.

The strikes have been repeatedly characterised as being about who opens and closes train doors. Journalists might consider this the best way to capture the distinction between different modes of train operation – but it’s also the easiest way to dismiss and ridicule the dispute.

The reality is that with driver-only operation, all operational functions are removed from conductors. It’s then left to drivers to assess – at each station – whether it’s safe to leave the platform. Aslef, the train drivers’ union, says this requires its members to look at dozens of CCTV images in a matter of seconds. And ultimately, trains can run with just the driver.

While Southern has promised not to dismiss its current workforce, unions fear that removing the guarantee of a second member of staff will eventually lead to them being ditched altogether. Who would look after passengers if the driver became incapacitated?

In an article, BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg suggested the dispute was also fuelled by rivalry between the RMT, which represents the conductors, and Aslef. Though the relationship between the two unions hasn’t always been easy, she misses the point entirely.

At a TUC fringe meeting in 2014, I watched RMT delegates accuse drivers of being happy to accept pay-rises in exchange for implementing driver-only operation. Aslef insisted this was not its approach, and the following year the union’s conference endorsed a motion calling for no extension of the method, and for guards to be restored where they had already been axed.

Surely the real theme of the Southern dispute is the unity of the workforce. Conductors are striking against de-skilling, drivers are striking against taking on additional duties, and the mandate for action among both groups is overwhelming.

It’s true, however, that a walk-out of drivers can have a much bigger impact than a conductors’ strike – given that 60 per cent of Southern services are already driver-only. And this is why Southern’s owner Govia Thameslink Railway, Britain’s worst-performing railway, has been so keen to prevent Aslef from going on strike. When Gatwick Express (also part of GTR) drivers refused to drive new 12-carriage trains without guards in April, the company secured a court injunction preventing striking over driver-only trains. It did so again in June after drivers voted to strike, with the High Court agreeing the ballot had included drivers on irrelevant routes.


When drivers balloted again in August, lawyers went over the ballot with a fine tooth-comb and forced the union to re-ballot over a technicality, fittingly, about doors. This week’s strike was only allowed because first the High Court, and then the Court of Appeal, ruled it was not an infringement of EU freedom of movement laws. When GTR launched this bid in the courts, a senior trade unionist told me it was in “wanky wonderland” if it thought it would win.

You’d think such expensive litigation would be risky for a company facing the ire of frustrated passengers. Things have got so bad some have moved house or switched to driving to work instead. But GTR, unlike most of Britain’s private railways, doesn’t operate on the normal franchise model. Rather than collecting fare revenue, the company is paid a set fee by the government – and so it has far lesser risks.

Critics say this has made Southern ideal as a test-ground for taking on the unions over driver-only operation, claiming the government wants to make it national as part of a cost-cutting drive.

But even with such a good deal on a plate, chaos has followed Southern bosses everywhere. At the Transport Select Committee in July, the firm faced heavy criticism for failing to recruit enough staff at the start of the contract. Southern has accused unions of unofficial action through high levels of staff sickness. But are these really a surprise when industrial relations are so bad and workers are threatened with the sack?

The Committee issued a withering report – but that was where its powers stopped. Transport secretary Grayling is also refusing to act, and the company is, after all, owned by a FTSE 250 firm and a French transport group. The only people with the power to do anything, it seems, are the workers. As hell-raising as their strike may be, perhaps it’s time we celebrated it.

Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. This article previously appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

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