De Muelenaere godshuizen, 1613. Image: Will Seath

A timeless alternative for housing the elderly

COVID-19 has exposed problems with the US long-term care model of nursing homes. About 40 percent of total COVID deaths in the US have occurred in nursing homes. Residents have been subject to severe isolation in 2020—visiting such facilities has been difficult and sometimes impossible during the pandemic.

The long-term care disaster has highlighted an ongoing question: Is there a better way physical model for housing the elderly? Thomas Dougherty, an architect based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, has written about the “godshuizen” (God’s Houses) of Bruges, Belgium. Each group consists of approximately a dozen cottages framing a courtyard. “They were built by guilds or wealthy individuals as almshouses for the old, and widows,” he told Public Square. “They exist within the block; you walk through the brick arch off the main street, down a path and find yourself in a very quiet, peaceful, formal garden surrounded by small houses. Today they are managed by the city for elderly citizens. They range in date from the 1500s to the 1900s—but are almost identical. Because of its location inside the block, the grocery, bakery, pharmacy and town life are simply a couple steps away.”

Dougherty wrote an article with Dr. Randall B. Smith for The Catholic World Report on the godshuizen: 

The godshuizen of Bruges, as well as many others around Belgium and the Netherlands, offer a vision of a person-centered environment for elderly living today. God’s-houses could be simply constructed and built on small parcels of urban land as they were centuries ago. Small individual homes for elderly living are already being offered as an alternative to institutional nursing home care. Dr. Bill Thomas, who spent his career reforming nursing home culture and practices, came to the conclusion that an alternative to the nursing home had to be created. In 2017 he founded Minka, an initiative that creates small one-story modular homes designed around aging—just about the size of the traditional godshuis. The Minka innovation in elderly care and elderly living could find a perfect union with the godshuis model. The modern godshuis could be much like the old: made from simply-stacked brick and a sturdy roof, they could last for centuries. The interior of the houses could be designed and manufactured at the highest quality of elderly care modular home interiors built today.

Entrance to De Muelenaere from the street. Source: Wikipedia
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