After a bicycle accident left him incapacitated for months in 2008, Coen van de Steeg realised that however competent, healthcare professionals cannot heal the patient’s feeling of uselessness or provide relief for his informal caregivers – his spouse, his children, his friends. He took to social media to pass time and his loneliness resonated with many, including Maaike Schnabel, a breast cancer survivor. Of their chance encounter was born the idea of a marketplace for carers, which quickly took up speed, won social innovation awards, and garnered the support of a coalition of big organisations, including national and local governments, banks and insurance companies.
WeHelpen was founded in 2011. The concept is simple, yet it relies so heavily on individual kindness – and trust! – that it almost seems utopian: a peer-to-peer platform where people can ask their neighbours for assistance or offer their own services. The surprising result? “As of now we count 35,000 members, and there are five times more people willing to help than asking for it,” marvels Van de Steeg.
In addition to people’s reluctance to annoy others with requests for favours, this discrepancy can also be explained by a deep-seated need to connect: 50% of the matches on WeHelpen.nl are born through a desire for company. Feeling useful is an integral part of recovery and of well-being in general. Take Martin, a WeHelpen user: when his mental health issues reached the limits of what the healthcare system could provide, his welfare worker recommended WeHelpen. On the website, Martin found an elderly cancer patient who could not tend her garden anymore. “I was isolated and afraid to get out of the house. When she showed her vulnerability, she actually saved me.” Today, thanks to WeHelpen, Martin helps 14 different people in his neighbourhood and his health has dramatically improved.
Caring for caregivers
The other side of the coin is the challenge that represents the four million informal caregivers in the Netherlands. “The patients are in good hands, but people who care for their parents with Alzheimer or their child with autism are burdened and neglected. 10% of them burn out: they quit work, they become patients themselves, requiring doctors and medications,” laments Van de Steeg. WeHelpen platform has chosen these informal caregivers as one of their target audiences. The website doesn’t only connect strangers; it also allows the creation of private groups where a close network of relatives and neighbours can be activated in practical, logistical ways. Van de Steeg expands on the year’s goals: “Within a week of a patient’s stay at the hospital, it’s easy to identify their informal caregivers. If doctors, nurses and social workers turn them onto WeHelpen, they will find some relief, and so will the healthcare system. In the next years, we want to impact the lives of 100,000 caregiving situations. It will benefit everybody.”
Strengthening the network
The wider the participation, the easier it will be to break a vicious circle that is costly for the healthcare system, and that’s why local governments, banks and insurance companies (such as the city of Groeningen, Rabobank, Achmea, Menzis and VitaValley) are not only financially supporting but also adhering to WeHelpen’s programme in groves. They get access to the platform’s knowledge bank, training programmes and implementation support, and in return increase the visibility of the network at local healthcare facilities, and participate in the website’s community management.
“It’s not a matter of discharging the responsibility to citizens,” clarifies Van de Steeg; “it’s about strengthening the network to create more vital solutions. In Holland, healthcare and welfare are well-, sometimes over-, regulated, and we have lost the normal, human inter-relationship.” Community-oriented collaboration can create a better, more comprehensive healthcare: after all, it takes a village.