The Netherlands is a prosperous, densely populated country of 17 million people that prides itself on openness, entrepreneurship, and innovation. The last Western European country to become an aged society, in 2005, it is now among the region’s fastest-aging societies. Since World War II, the country has built a comprehensive social safety net that has helped to create a healthy and active older population. However, the financial crisis and economic recession 10 years ago strained government finances and led to deepening concerns about the long-term financial burden on the social safety net due to the increasing number of older adults. This has resulted in a gradual shift to the concept of a participation society, in which individuals are expected to become less dependent on the state, and instead more self-sufficient or more reliant on family and community support.

Older people in the Netherlands have long benefited from an extensive range of initiatives led by diverse stakeholders to promote their social participation and to cultivate an age-friendly environment. However, there is still a lack of housing adapted to older adults’ needs, and informal caregiving has received less support than in other EU countries. Aware of these strengths and weaknesses, the government launched the Pact for the Elderly Care (Pact voor de Ouderenzorg) in early 2018. The clear focus of the Pact is to support active aging at home along with alleviating loneliness and improving nursing home services.

While the government has raised the pension age, greater attention is being given to removing legal obstacles to labor participation by older adults. As a result, the Netherlands has recently seen one of the greatest gains in the labor force participation of older adults among OECD countries. In addition, the government, together with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), is stimulating the development of information and communications technology (ICT)-based solutions for aging through various funding schemes, although achieving scale remains a challenge.

A small but densely populated country, the Netherlands is one of the most rapidly aging countries in Western Europe, becoming a super-aged society within the next decade. The speed of aging has accelerated over the past decade as the 2.4 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1955 started turning age 65 in 2011.

Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division

Percentage of Population Age 65 and Over

(Source: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division)

Ecosystem for Policy and Social Innovation

The Netherlands is widely considered a global leader in aging policy and social innovation. Its strength stems from a culture that highly values solidarity and equality and is known for its polder model—a form of decision making characterized by consensus building and collaboration. The government encourages experimentation in new social programs and provides both academic resources as well as funding to test new ideas and to replicate successful ones. This has resulted in a productive policy and social innovation ecosystem, and it has produced programs created by diverse stakeholders and implemented through cross-sector collaboration.

“Even though the polder model sometimes hinders quick evolvement, it guarantees the involvement of all stakeholders—and eases the implementation of decisions afterwards. Stakeholders rarely delay the actual implementation of a decision they were involved in making.”

– Ronnie van Diemen, Inspector-General of the Netherlands Health Care Inspectorate

“Although the Netherlands embodies well-developed institutional infrastructure, rules and legislations are not too tight to hinder innovation, but rather allow for enough flexibility to pilot projects, testing ideas, proving their effectiveness, and scaling-up successful modes.”

– Joris Slaets, Director of Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing

Driving Forces of Innovation and Cross-Sector Collaboration

Community Social Infrastructure

Dutch society offers a robust and comprehensive community support system. One of its distinct strengths is the close collaboration between the national and local government and private actors, including NGOs, businesses, and older adults themselves. As the government shifts away from a system with generous social benefits toward more of a participation society that emphasizes the individual’s own responsibility, this supportive system will become increasingly crucial to the ability of older adults to age in place independently and comfortably. While the country is advanced in physical infrastructure and accessibility, there is undoubtedly room for improvement. One growing challenge is the lack of housing with features adapted to the needs of older adults, which has just started to draw political attention and some early efforts.

Breakdown of Households Headed by People Age 65 and Older

Like in other countries in Western Europe, independence and autonomy are highly valued in Dutch society. As of 2012, 93 percent of older people lived either alone or with a spouse.

Source: CBS

City Village-South Amsterdam (Stadsdorp-Zuid)

Individuals, nonprofits, and for-profit organizations form a strong, grassroots force to promote active aging. A variety of innovative practices have emerged from their efforts, with the City Village-South Amsterdam (Stadsdorp-Zuid) among the earliest and best-known initiatives to support active aging. In 2009, conscious of the policy shift toward a participation society, seven older adults from the South-Amsterdam neighborhood founded the City Village-South Amsterdam to strengthen mutual support among peers. Its initial focus was to hold workshops on topics relevant to those who wanted to live healthy and independent lives. The initiative soon evolved into 14 hobby clubs and a social network of more than 400 members in the area, with subgroups known as Modern Neighborhoods—each consisting of roughly 30 individuals who lived close to each other facilitating mutual assistance when needed. This initiative has been well-received among participants, who are charged a monthly membership fee of only EUR 7.50 (approximately USD 9). The initiative gained financial self-sufficiency within two years of its launch after initially receiving funds from several organizations, including the RCOAK Foundation, the Sluyterman van Loo Foundation, and the Van Bylandt Fund. The model has proven so successful that 24 other City Villages have started in Amsterdam, with other countries—like Japan—considering replicating the program.

“The secret of the success [of the Stadsdorp-Zuid] lies in its bottom-up approach and the fact that it is organized by older adults themselves.”

– Mary van Vucht, a founder of City Village South Amsterdam

Productive Opportunity

In recent years, the Netherlands has been among the developed economies that have made the greatest progress in promoting the older population’s productive participation. Over the past decade, the labor force participation (LFP) rate of people age 65 and above rose 58 percent, twice as fast as the OECD average. To tap into the productive potential of older adults and to enable those who wish to work longer, the government has adopted a holistic approach. When the government increased the age for public pension eligibility, it also removed legal obstacles to postponing retirement and provided job placement assistance. While national laws and government initiatives have been central, effective tripartite dialogues have also played their part. Despite recent progress, the LFP of older workers is still well below the OECD average, suggesting room for growth. A greater effort is needed in areas such as age discrimination and sustainable employability.

Labor Force Participate Rate, Age 65 and Older, in 2017

In 2017, 7.7 percent of people age 65 and older were active in the labor market. In line with the high prevalence of part-time work in the Netherlands, more than 80 percent of them worked part time.

Source: ILO Statistics

Crafts Academy (The Ambachtsacademie)

The Crafts Academy provides an interesting model to match the supply of older workers with the market demand. The program was just established in February 2018 by the Dutch Employee Insurance Agency (UWV) in partnership with the Crafts Academy, an organization that seeks to support small-scale crafts enterprises and sectors. The project is intended to connect the supply of older jobseekers with the demand for craftspeople in society. It is projected that 450,000 new craftspeople are needed in the Netherlands through 2025. With a grant of EUR 2 million (USD 2.3 million) from the government, the Crafts Academy offers a two-year training program to 200 unemployed people age 50 and older. The training is offered at a minimum cost to participants of only EUR 250 (USD 290). As craftspeople are often self-employed, courses include entrepreneurship. While still at an early stage, the Crafts Academy is looking to expand to open its doors to adults age 18 and older in the future.

Technological Engagement

The Netherlands boasts both the largest high-speed broadband connectivity among EU countries and the highest level of internet access at home. The country also has among the most digitally savvy older populations. As such, the Netherlands is competitively positioned to capitalize on the power of digital technology to support the aging population. To take advantage of this opportunity, the Dutch government has been keen to promote ICT-based solutions for aging, and after early success it is increasingly focused on achieving scale. The government has fallen short in improving online accessibility due to lack of political awareness, but interesting practices are emerging from the business sector.

In 2017, 81 percent of adults ages 65 to 74 used the internet at least once a week, compared with an EU average of 48 percent. Dutch usage rate was the third highest within EU countries—after only Luxembourg and Denmark. The differential between internet usage rate for adults ages 65 to 74 and the general population was 13 percent in the Netherlands—less than half of the EU average.

Source: Eurostat

“We don’t talk so much about technology because it’s hardly ever just technology. It’s always about technology supporting some interaction or some unique programming, etc., and technology embedded in services. [So] we talk about solutions.”

– Geja Langerveld, AAL Program Manager at ZonMw

National e-Health Living Lab (NeLL)

In addition to the government, academia is a growing player in cross-sectoral efforts of e-health development in the Netherlands. One innovative project is National e-Health Living Lab (NeLL). NeLL was launched in March 2018 with a particular focus on ensuring that older adults can benefit from technology advancement. Initiated by experts at the Leiden University Medical Center, NeLL seeks to build a national platform that engages academia, research institutions, businesses, and consumers to collaboratively develop better e-health products and services for vulnerable groups—including older adults, people with chronic diseases, and those with low literacy. Participants include 87 entrepreneurs or start-ups, five healthcare organizations, and three interest groups of older adults. NeLL also evaluates e-health solutions based on their effect on health improvement as well as time- and cost-efficiency in an effort to inform government decisions on what to cover with basic insurance.

Health Care and Wellness

The Netherlands is one of the world’s most generous spenders when it comes to its citizens’ health and wellness. It boasts one of the world’s best health care and long-term care (LTC) systems and is at the global front line in battling dementia. In recent years, the government has been working on reforming the LTC system to pursue fiscal sustainability and improve the quality of care. As reforms shift the focus from residential care to home-based care, immediate and stronger action is needed to strengthen support for informal caregivers, and improvement is needed to accommodate the special needs of older adults—in particular, older migrants.

The average distance from households to a general practitioner (GP) center is 1 kilometer or 0.6 mile. In a 2013 EU-wide survey on patient safety and quality of care, 91 percent of respondents in the Netherlands rated the Dutch healthcare system “good”.

“The Netherlands is among the countries with the best long-term care systems. There is a close collaboration between science and practice resulting in continuously improving long-term care.”

– Wilco Achterberg, Professor of Institutional Care and Elderly Care Medicine at Leiden University Medical Center

“The Dutch government had not expected that people with a migrant background would age in the Netherlands and did not design policy targeting this group, who, due to their cultural background have difference care and support needs.”

– Lucis Lameiro Garcis, Coordinator of NOOM

Dementia-Friendly Supermarkets

The largest Dutch supermarket chain, Albert Heijn, partnered in 2015 with Alzheimer Nederland to provide dementia-related training to its employees. The idea originally came from Nico Spierenburg, then Branch Manager of the Albert Heijn store in the town of Doorn. Spierenburg noticed that the store staff had difficulty interacting with customers with dementia and realized the potential to improve business performance because older adults made up a large segment of their customers. Inspired by this observation, Spierenburg worked with Alzheimer Nederland to develop a training course for 25 employees who later trained the other employees in the supermarket. When the training was completed, Alzheimer Nederland conducted an assessment and awarded it the Dementia Friendly Label. The project was a huge success and was welcomed by older adults and their families, leading to an improvement in customer satisfaction along with a noticeable growth of older customers. As a result, Albert Heijn Nederland signed an agreement with Alzheimer Nederland to expand this training program to 225 other supermarket locations. Spierenburg attributed the success of the dementia-friendly supermarket to its practical and cost-effective training, as well as to the commitment of its employees.

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