In the past decade or two, the term “helicopter parent” has gained popularity in U.S. higher education to describe a generation of overprotective parents. Their children, who are now our students, are often criticized for being “coddled,” “overly-sensitive,” and “dependent” young adults. The generalization ignores the fact that many students have grown up in households with a parent who had neither the time nor the resources to hover over them. What’s more, the labels ignore the possibility that there’s an upside. Maybe helicopter-parented students have been shown a model of an important level of altruism, of care for others. Concerned about others, our current postmillenial, or “Generation We,” students are reported to value jobs where they can do good over jobs with higher paychecks.

In the Netherlands where the achterbankgeneratie (the “back seat generation”) has received similar criticism, one program has turned the notion of youth, dependence, and care on its head. Students in the town of Deventer have been living in an elderly home, essentially living with their grandparents in exchange for room and board. On October 12, Gea Sijpkes, CEO of Humanitas Deventer, explained the social and societal power of her program to an audience of over 100 university and community members as she presented the 22nd De Vries – Van der Kooy Memorial lecture “Aging and Engaging: Dutch Pragmatic Innovation in the Care for Old and Young.” 

She explained how the home, in the face of budget cuts, receives companionship for the elderly from students. Subsequently, the elderly have a renewed zest for life and connection to the world, and students report a deeper sense of life, death, calm and civic engagement.

Ms. Sijpkes’ visit extended beyond the lecture to classroom visits and meetings with members of the local elderly and elderly care community. Dutch program students, especially those in the Michigan Community Scholars Program (a residential program that focuses on community service) considered how the Humanitas Deventer program could work on campus. Local professionals who are setting up student-elderly programs stated that the visit caused a real shift in their thinking away from recruiting students in health-related fields. This Dutch program explicitly warns against student-elderly health care-based relationships. The strength of the program, it argues, is in old and young sharing life and becoming friends. 

Streaming of the lecture can be found on the Germanic Languages and Literatures website. We thank all our many donors at U-M, in the community, and in the Dutch national corps for their generous support of the event.