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Happiness through living together

Photo: Kalle Kervinen

Happiness through living together

In Helsinki’s Sanervakoti people suffering from dementia and mental health problems are living under the same roof as students, sharing everyday life and special activities.

In the corridors of the Sanervakoti Home you can hear someone playing a guitar. On the third floor, the residents have gathered in the dining room to listen to Nikita Rytkönen playing. Soon they will go downstairs to do some baking. “Here I can put my musical skills to good use and play together with the residents. This helps me in my studies, and at the same time gives me a lot of pleasure”, says Nikita.

Sanervakoti, maintained by the Helsinki Deaconess Institute, represents a new concept in communal living in Finland. The first three floors of the home, located in East Helsinki, are occupied by people in rehabilitation for mental health problems and dementia sufferers requiring round-the-clock care. The fourth floor is reserved for students, who pay a reduced rent in return for working certain hours: For example, they can take residents out for a walk, watch television together or otherwise spend time with them.

A safe and enriching environment

Helsingin Diakonissalaitos (The Helsinki Deaconess Institute) is a non-profit foundation that provides social, health and educational services. The Sanerva Home can accommodate 48 people suffering from dementia. The idea of taking in students came up in spring 2015, when a whole floor was left unoccupied after renovation work.

“We had already discussed how we could give our residents with dementia a happier, fuller social life. Our nursing staff organizes activities for the residents daily, including exercise, music, handicrafts and cooking. However, the aim is that our nurses should be able to concentrate on the nursing work itself, while cultural activities and hobbies would be entrusted to others”, says Anna-Liisa Arjama who is Unit Director in charge of developing care work.

Sanervakoti Home is taking active steps to make the residence more home-like and less institutional. To do this it is cooperating with educational institutions and voluntary workers. The students living in the home bring a new dimension to the residents’ social life. Seeing familiar faces and doing things together help to give the residents a feeling of safety and a sense of community. At the same time the students gain valuable experience, which will benefit them in their future careers.

Student life in assisted accommodation

The first students moved into the home in August 2015. They were mainly chosen from among the Deaconess Institute’s own practical nursing students, but also from other places of education. “Someone studying to be a mechanic could equally well live here. We have many male residents and it’s good to have someone who can talk to them about things they’re interested in, like machines and how to oil them,” says Anna-Liisa Arjama.

Guitar player Nikita Rytkönen, who is studying to be a practical nurse, has lived in the Home since autumn of 2015. He heard about the accommodation at school, just when he was urgently in need of a place to live. Before moving in, he went there to talk with the staff and see round the Home. “I’m really happy living here. The rooms are great and it’s definitely a win-win situation, both for us and for the residents”, he says.

  • Nikita Rytkönen playing the guitar for residents of Sanervakoti. The students’ tasks are allotted on the basis of their own interests. Photo: Kalle Kervinen

  • Tuulia Kivisaari, making dough together with a resident. The other residents will join them later to bake coffee bread and buns. Photo: Kalle Kervinen

The students can move around freely in the building and invite friends to their rooms. Sometimes they have parties on the fourth floor, too. “We live just like anyone else living in a block of flats. The same rules apply. If I want to have a party, of course I consult the other students living on the fourth floor,” says Nikita.

The students pay 350 euros a month in rent. This includes breakfast, which they eat along with the other residents. The students also receive advice and support on issues relating to money matters, accommodation and studies.

Tuulia Kivisaari, a social services graduate working at Sanervakoti Home, has taken the students under her wing. She draws up an individual work plan with each one and is involved in the students’ everyday lives in other ways too. “I regularly visit the students’ floor and ask them how they are getting on. They also come and talk to me if something is troubling them. Sometimes I have had to talk to them about such matters as garbage disposal and cleaning the kitchen. It gives me a kind of maternal feeling”, is how Tuulia Kivisaari describes it.

The students are expected to commit to the principles of community living, which include respect for difference, cooperation, and an active approach. There are no strict rules, but they will be modified as experience accumulates. Once a month there is a community meeting where residents and staff discuss how well this model of communal living is succeeding.

Games and cheerfulness

The students’ rental agreement includes 20 to 30 hours of work a month. The planning of the tasks takes into account the students’ skills and interests, and also the aim that the tasks should support their studies. They also get credits for the work they do. In order to encourage the students and to support their ability to work independently, the staff work together with them whenever necessary.

On Wednesdays the students organize a club evening for the other residents, where they spend time together for instance by playing games. A large number of cheerful people gather around the table. Everyone enjoys being together. “It feels good to have people near you. If you have nothing to do you can go downstairs and watch TV and chat with others”, says Nikita, describing everyday life in the community.

Sanervakoti Home does not have any more resources available than others, nor does it differ in structure from other more traditional modes of supported housing. “It’s not a question of our residents being in better health than those in other homes. We simply began to consider what a new approach might be like and how we could renew the way we work. And these new ways of working have brought just the empowerment and happiness that we hoped for,” is how Anna-Liisa Arjama sums it up.


    February 2016
    Finland, Helsinki

    Sanervakoti on facebook
    Helsingin Diakonissalaitos


    Eva Korhonen
    is a project member and activist interested in building a just and sustainable future.

    Translated by

    Rosemary Mackenzie


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    This text is licensed under a Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International.

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