STOLWIJK NETHERLANDS – “Cup of coffee, Mrs. Lubbers?” Henk Hom asks a 92-year-old pensioner at the provincial Dutch retirement home where he volunteers so his father can have a room.
At the Wilhogen home, just outside the central city of Gouda, the “society of participation” is slowly replacing the “classic welfare state,” part of a social revolution heralded by King Willem-Alexander in the name of the Liberal government last month.
While the Netherlands is still considered one of the best places in the world to be elderly, with most care paid for by mandatory insurance, its generous welfare state of the late 20th century is definitely on its way out.
Instead, people are increasingly called on to provide a service in exchange for welfare benefits, along the lines of the “Big Society” concept championed by Britain’s conservative-liberal coalition. And in a historically Calvinist country such as the Netherlands, a “moral obligation” carries a lot of weight.
When the Wilhogen retirement facility first floated the project of trading volunteer work for care with relatives of their elderly clients, most were enthusiastic about the idea. Some needed a “talking to,” the home said, but only one family decided to take their relative elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Lubbers is happy to accept the offer of coffee as she sits peacefully in her electric wheelchair in the living room of the retirement home among the flat green fields of the village of Stolwijk.
“Nice and black please, Henk,” she said.
The convivial Henk Hom, 45, is an agricultural supply wholesaler. In order for his 80-year-old father, also called Henk, to have a room in the home, Hom must work there for four hours per month.
His duties are social rather than medical.
“Speaking to people, listening to the people here,” he said. “There’s a woman who’s mad about music, certain singers, so I put music on and she’s happy.
“It’s the little things, which aren’t difficult and only require a small effort, and that makes people happy.”
So Hom also spends some time each month sweeping the floor or cooking for the home’s eight pensioners.
“The volunteers don’t replace trained personnel,” said nurse Rik Remmerswaal, 33. “We have enough professionals for the health care, but we don’t always have enough time for the other tasks, like reading, going for walks, reading the papers.”
The retirement home’s management carried out a test phase before launching the program of “moral obligation,” which it insists is not about cutting costs. “The aim really is to improve the pensioners’ well-being, to offer care that’s a little more human,” said the home’s director, Sylvia Oudenes.
The move was nevertheless controversial because although there is no legal obligation — family members are instead “very strongly encouraged” to take part.
Mezzo is an association that has for years defended the rights of volunteer workers, of which there are already 2.6 million in the Netherlands’ population of 17 million.
“This moral obligation can lead to overwork,” Mezzo director Liesbeth Hoogendijk said in response to the new project. “Only if the volunteers are really voluntary can they keep doing it intensively and in the long term. Forcing people isn’t the right way to do it.”
Health Undersecretary Martin van Rijn, whose health service is being radically overhauled as part of Dutch government austerity measures, said the initiative is “encouraging” and fitted in with his plans.
“The volunteers play a role in these people’s happiness,” he wrote to parliament after questions were asked about the so-called obligation. “I see them and the professionals as partners, they’re complementary.”
Van Rijn also wants to force the elderly themselves to volunteer, as long as they’re able, to “give back to society” in return for the care they receive. They could, for instance, help children do their homework or assist those who are behind at school.
By 2015, many health responsibilities will have passed from Dutch government to local authorities, which will receive €11.3 billion ($15.6 billion) and allow central government to save €2 billion a year.
“It’s asked of all those who can, to take responsibility for their own lives and those around you,” Willem-Alexander said in a speech about the end of the welfare state — written by Prime Minister Mark Rutte — to mark the opening of parliament last month.
While retirement homes get government subsidies, they are only for health care and housing, not for pensioners’ well-being. As a result, it is up to the homes to decide on what services they want to provide, beyond the most basic.
For Hom, it is not really a chore to come and look after his father and other pensioners. “It’s not really work. You come to visit anyway, don’t you?” he said. “This is my father, after all.”