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.


The rare challenge of building a pandemic memorial

A boy lights a candle at Vienna's plague memorial, the Trinity Column.

In late March, Vienna residents began leaving candles and prayers for protection at the Trinity Column, commonly called the plague column.

Dating back to 1679, the enormous, elaborate, centrally located pillar commemorates the Great Plague, in which more than 80,000 people died. More than three centuries later, the monument became a logical gathering place for memorialising those who have died during the coronavirus pandemic, which has a still-rising death toll of more than 400,000 around the world.

Public memorials often serve as solemn places for solace-seekers during and after disasters. At their most powerful, they offer “a gentle push toward a thoughtful or empathetic frame of mind,” says Dr. Mechtild Widrich, an associate professor in The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism.

But unlike wars, terrorism, or other disasters, surprisingly little has been done to commemorate victims of pandemics, including the global outbreak that Covid-19 most closely resembles, the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. Similarly, despite being one of the most relentless and fatal diseases in human history, little has been built to commemorate those who have died from Ebola.

That has to do, in part, with the complex nature of memorials. “Historically, monuments were made for the victor,” Widrich says. Unlike statues built to fallen soldiers, the deaths of a pandemic are not heroic, nor did those deaths pave the way for success. The purpose of such a memorial – and the challenge – would be to honor the individuals who died of the coronavirus while in no way celebrating the loss of life.

Vienna's plague memorial, the Trinity Column, quickly became a place for mourners to memorialise the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. (Alex Halada/AFP via Getty Images)

The pandemic has waned in some of the hardest hit epicentres like Italy and New York, while it's still raging in others like Brazil. Architects and planners everywhere are focusing on designing for life in response to Covid, but it's in some of these hardest-hit areas where discussions could soon turn to considering the overwhelming task of creating meaningful, lasting monuments to the victims of this pandemic.

One of the most obvious, moving examples of dedicated public space for reflection and contemplation about a pandemic is the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, designated as a national memorial in 1996, 15 years after what became known as HIV/AIDS was first mentioned in US medical literature. In the five years before its official designation, hundreds of volunteers collaborated on annual workdays to beautify the grounds and design a memorial space that earned the city's participation and, eventually, recognition from the US Congress.

A man looks at the engraved names of AIDS victims at the National Aids Memorial Grove in San Francisco. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Like the best memorials, the space is somber and beautiful, with a blend of natural redwood trees and stone structures rendered with the names of the dead. It feels welcoming to the public, and sobering without being scary. It has also served as a catalyst for further memorials: In the past year, related projects have coalesced under its stewardship, including the AIDS Memorial Quilt and two HIV/AIDS oral history projects that have preserved more than 1,000 stories from survivors and loved ones.

The goal of the Grove extends beyond memorialising those who died of AIDS. It serves as a physical space that furthers a mission of keeping AIDS at the forefront of the national conversation. For that reason, it may serve as one of the most useful models for Covid-19 commemorations.

Much like Vienna’s Plague Column, the AIDS Memorial is also a space for communing during tragedy. “Over the past decade, the Grove has been the site of spontaneous gatherings in other times of great loss,” says John Cunningham, the memorial’s executive director, noting mass shootings have brought San Franciscans to the garden in collective mourning. “Hundreds gathered here after Newtown, when the nation was in a state of mourning, and again after Pulse nightclub, to remember the tragedy there and also redouble our efforts toward social justice and human rights.”

The lack of a memorial or place to gather – even something as obvious and seemingly simple as a burial ground – can add to feelings of grief and loss. Numerous strains of Ebola have emerged in the past 40 years, yet little physical space is designated to mourn the terrible, ever-growing death toll.

Between 2014 and 2016, the world’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak devastated West African nations including Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, killing more than 11,325 people. The current ongoing, second-largest Ebola epidemic, centered in the Democratic Republic of Congo – the nation’s tenth in 40 years – has raged since August 2018, killing more than 2,270 people, and shows tentative signs of finally slowing last month.

Due to both the magnitude and severity of the contagion, death caused by Ebola frequently leaves survivors without a body to bury. Bodies are often cremated in order to stem the epidemic, and in some areas, this means families do not hold funerals and have no cemetery to visit. This complicates important commemorations, such as Decoration Day in Liberia, when families spend time with and spruce up their loved ones’ gravesites – and it also informed the creation of Liberia's Ebola Memorial Cemetery, an Ebola gravesite that had initially been left unattended but was designated an official memorial in 2016.

While large physical gatherings are still mostly off limits due to Covid, much of the early work to memorialise the coronavirus pandemic has already begun in a virtual setting. To try to measure the overwhelming death toll, several news organisations have devoted resources to tracking Covid deaths. A small alliance of interfaith and social justice groups held a 24-hour virtual memorial in late May, reading aloud via livestream tens of thousands of names of people who died from Covid.

Other personal projects, such as the FacesOfCOVID Twitter account, seek to compile even a small percentage of the fatalities. Alex Goldstein, who runs a strategic communications firm in Boston, started the account in March and publishes several dozen obituaries every day with the help of his friend, Scott Zoback. They also receive photos and stories directly from family members whose relatives have died of the coronavirus.

Goldstein grew up in the shadow of a different disaster; he was a high school senior on September 11, 2001. For him, profound memories of 9/11 include crowds of thousands attending the funerals of firefighters, and the services broadcast to thousands more viewers. “But the nature of this pandemic limits our ability to gather, and that impacts how we mourn and grieve,” he says.

How these early digital projects might translate into physical monuments and memorials is unclear. In the aftermath of many disasters, makeshift memorials often arise first, as do digital remembrances. In the case of a catastrophe such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the designated memorial site is typically obvious.

People pause during a visit to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

That doesn’t mean it’s straightforward for numerous constituencies to negotiate the physical and emotional range the piece will convey. The process of selecting architects, artists, and designers can be fraught. The 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, for example, was the subject of political and economic debates for fundraising disputes and budget-related delays. Many victims' families boycotted the memorial, aghast that it would house unidentified human remains and commercially profit from entrance fees and a gift shop.

Some countries in particular might choose to include an element that reminds visitors of the devastating effects of a slow or inadequate public health response. For that, they could draw inspiration from a memorial in Hong Kong that pays homage to frontline healthcare workers that treated patients suffering from another coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). In addition to the eight medical professors honored in the small park, the 2003 SARS epidemic killed nearly 300 people.

Cunningham notes that the National AIDS Memorial, created during a pandemic that has still not ended, offers a physical template for plague memorials as well as emotional and spiritual reminders on how to persevere through Covid.

“The Grove offers those living through a new pandemic a legacy of resilience,” he says, “and the reminder to never give up hope.”

Britta Shoot is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.