New network helps globetrotting, room-swapping seniors

GLOBETROTTERS: Miquel Ribas, an 82-year-old Spaniard, poses at a care home for the elderly in Topolsica on July 24, 2014, during a week-long trip to Slovenia. This is the first international exchange of rooms in care homes for seniors, organised by social networking agency Linkedage, a Slovenian company that developed a web platform to link residences all over Europe and the world to enable similar exchanges or to rent vacant rooms.

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia: Conventional wisdom would hold that a move into a retirement home means that a pensioner's days of adventure are over. 

But a new social network in Slovenia wants to change that and make globetrotting easier for older folk with wanderlust who want — or need — the services of a specialised residence for seniors. 

"Once the opportunity arose, I quickly decided I wanted to go to Spain," said Jozica Kucera, a 77-year-old widow from Slovenia.

WELCOME: A blackboard with a welcome note for Miguel Ribas in a care home for the elderly in Topolsica, where he stayed during a week-long trip to Slovenia. Ribas, who lives in a care home in Mataro, on the Spanish coast near Barcelona, has free accommodation during his trip in a similar care home in Slovenia, provided by Jozica Kucera, a 77-year-old Slovenian widow, who will spend the same time in his room in Spain. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014

In late July, she swapped her room in a retirement home in the northern city of Topolsica to spend a week at a similar facility in Mataro, a Mediterranean beach town near Barcelona. 

She speaks no Spanish, though has German and some English "but we'll find a way," Kucera told AFP before leaving. "I'm not afraid at all. I wonder how elderly people live there." 

Travelling in the opposite direction was Miquel Ribas, an 82-year-old Spaniard who stayed in Kucera's room while she occupied his. 

One major plus: accommodation for both is free, along with meals, activities, medical care and services provided by the residences. Kucera's only expenses were a €60 (RM257.73) membership fee in the network, called Linkedage, and the airfare to her destination.  

'Like day and night' 

A few days into his own stay, Ribas said his lack of Slovenian had not stopped him from enjoying an active holiday exploring hills and forests around Topolsica. "I've already learnt four or five words," he said. 

The Spanish octogenarian joked that the exchange "is like day and night compared with Mataro, this being the day of course". 

"I'd go on a similar adventure again," he told AFP. "I've been taking pictures. I was told to take up to 100 if I can and we'll do a presentation when I get back."

SHUTTERBUG: Ribas taking a picture on his visit to Ljubljana during a week-long trip to Slovenia. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014 

The Slovenian company behind Linkedage, the Internet technology firm Socinet, says it is the first such international exchange for seniors in multi-residence housing and assisted living or nursing homes. 

The concept is simple: seniors living in homes that join the network can either exchange rooms or rent vacant rooms or apartments in far-flung destinations, safe in the knowledge that they will receive the treatment they need at the other end. 

Linkedage has developed a website of the same name that will allow pensioners to explore potential "holiday" homes that suit their travel whims — and more importantly their specific care needs. 

It has been backed by Europe's largest retirement home services association, the Berlin-based E.D.E. or the European Association for Directors and Providers of Long-Term Care Services for the Elderly. 

Europe getting old 

The platform's founders readily admit they were inspired by Europe's ageing profile. 

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development forecasts that 40% of the continent's population will be over 65 by the year 2060. 

OECD data also shows that there is a current 35% vacancy rate in retirement homes and assisted living facilities — offering tailor-made services for seniors — across Europe. 

"I thought, 'Why would my grandma, if she is active and has the money for a retirement home, stay in only one home instead of spending part of the year somewhere else where she could enjoy the same services?'" said Tomaz Lorenzetti, one of the Socinet founders. 

"We decided to concentrate first on Europe, mostly Spain, France and Germany, and later we will go global," said Diana Galijasevic, head of the Linkedage project. 

More than 100 care homes from a dozen countries, including Indonesia and Mexico, have already joined, she told AFP. 

The swaps were launched a few months ago among homes in Slovenia, and after the first international swaps this summer, more will follow. 

"In August we expect exchanges between neighbouring countries, first of all with Croatia, and hope that later we'll be able to organise the first exchange between Spain and Latin America," Galijasevic said. 

Once seniors choose their destination, local staff organise their stay — with language being one of the biggest challenges, conceded Diana Janezic, activities supervisor at the Topolsica residence.

SWEET: Ribas dancing with Janezic, who in charge of entertainment projects at the Topolsica care home. — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014 

"We called a local Spanish professor to help us and we've organised various visits for Miquel," she said. 

"But, at the same time, this kind of 'event' is interesting for other residents of the home, an additional entertainment," she added. 

"Not all seniors want to travel, but there are some who would have liked to but never did because they were afraid," Janezic said. "This way, the 'travel' opportunity will come to them." — ©AFP/Relaxnews 2014  

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