On 21 November 2013, the body of a 74-year-old woman was found at her home in Rotterdam. She had been dead for 10 years.
The woman was called Bep de Bruin. Born in what was the Dutch East Indies, she moved to the Netherlands as a teenager. She became isolated after experiencing an early trauma, breaking off contact with her only child.
So when Bep died sometime in 2003, no one realised. Her state pension automatically went into her bank account, while her rent was taken out. Bep’s body was only discovered after gas engineers needed access to her flat. Police pushed past a mountain of posts, which later helped them work out when she had died.
The discovery inspired a national campaign in the Netherlands to combat loneliness. A decade on and there are a huge number of schemes inspired by the same idea – that everyone should have a place in society.
The event galvanised the city into action. One local politician, Hugo de Junge, told a local TV station it was “a poignant image of how great loneliness can be in such a big city”. He launched a scheme which saw volunteers offer a welfare visit to all Rotterdam residents aged over 75, helping those who needed it to
When de Junge was appointed as minister of health, welfare and sport, he continued the cause, launching a national initiative to tackle loneliness among the elderly in 2018. And recent stats suggest it may be working.
It’s difficult to find reliable global figures, but last year the first EU-wide survey suggested around one in eight people feel lonely most of the time, while a third feel lonely at least some of the time. However, the Netherlands was found to have one of the lowest levels of loneliness in Europe.
Loneliness is a complex problem, with causes ranging from poor social skills to big life changes and isolation. There’s also a strong association between loneliness and poor physical and mental health.
The national initiative is called Een tegen eenzaamheid, or One Against Loneliness. Advisers visit the local areas, called municipalities, to help them create action plans. They also encourage municipalities to form anti-loneliness networks including health professionals, volunteers and businesses.
This has been replicated at a national level, with the creation of a National Coalition Against Loneliness. Members range from banks and supermarkets to charities, sports clubs and cultural institutions. They meet twice a year to share ideas and find ways to work together.
“A lot of people want to do something,” de Junge told a Dutch TV panel show when the scheme was first launched. “A wonderful movement you could say has been created, with lots of linked initiatives.”
It has inspired a number of innovative ideas from unexpected places. For instance, the Jumbo supermarket chain now has special klettskassa or “chatty checkouts” in dozens of its stores. Customers who would like to pass the time of day with the cashier without being rushed can join a special yellow lane to buy their groceries. It’s a far cry from lines of impersonal self-check-out machines.
Meanwhile, the national postal service, Post NL, has developed a voluntary scheme where postal workers can report a resident they think may be struggling.
“You can consider our deliverers an extra pair of ears and eyes in the neighbourhood,” says Thijs Kerckhoffs, director of social impact.
Following Bep de Bruin’s death, politician Hugo de Junge helped launch schemes to tackle loneliness across the Netherlands
The worker is told what to look for – such as curtains closed longer than usual or mail piled up – then they fill in a form with the resident’s details, which is passed to a welfare organisation.
“The postal worker isn’t told the outcome of the case for privacy reasons, but they have the peace of mind that they’ve passed on their concern,” Kerckhoffs says.
The scheme is currently running in 19 municipalities. Around 50 alerts have been sent over three years in Rotterdam – where Bep de Bruin was found – and nearly all were well-founded, according to local welfare partners. Part of the scheme’s expansion is thanks to the national coalition which put PostNL in touch with local welfare organisations via Social Work Netherlands.
The One Against Loneliness website also promotes social organisations that can show evidence of effectiveness – which encourages municipalities to include them in their plans.
One called Oopoeh now receives some funding from the four big cities in the Netherlands. They run a matchmaking website that pairs older adults who would like to look after a pet with busy dog owners. It’s free for seniors, with a small charge for dog owners.
“Some of our clients worry that a dog may outlive them. Or they don’t have the money to pay vet bills,” says director Ellen Groneman.”This allows them to have a dog part-time. It helps their physical and mental health and to meet people in their neighbourhood.”
Oopoeh has created 4,500 matches to date. Theo Nienhuijs, 74, is matched with Jeanette and her dog Bickel.
“When you get to your mid-70s, you can lose your connections,” he tells me as we walk Bickel in a local park.
“Bickel is the sweetest little dog and draws people in. People recognise me now and say hello. I’ve also formed a strong bond with Jeanette. If I had a problem she’d be on top of my list to telephone.”
An independent survey reflects Theo’s experience more widely. It found three-quarters of Oopoeh users said their physical health and social contact had improved.
Queen Maxima joined the Oma’s Soep group for a cooking session that brought together the elderly and young volunteers
In 2018, the national loneliness initiative was specifically targeted at helping older adults like Theo. However, it soon became apparent the issue was far greater.
Oma’s Soep – a soup business that puts half of its profits into funding cooking sessions pairing seniors with student volunteers – realised the students were benefiting as much as the attendees.
“We started the project because of loneliness among older people, but we realised there are many lonely young people as well, such as when they move cities to study,” says co-owner Martjin Canters.
So in 2022, the One Against Loneliness action programme was expanded to include the whole of society, with the coalition growing to 196 partners.
“Our stakeholders told us the focus on the elderly was too limited. Loneliness can happen to anyone,” says Mischa Stubenitsky, a health ministry spokesperson.
There are now research projects underway looking at other high-risk groups, including informal carers, older migrants and teenagers.
Former youth counsellor Jolanda van Gerwe said she was pleased the government had recognised teenagers were struggling too.
A few years ago, she set up a youth club called Join Us, specifically for young adults who struggle to form meaningful connections.
“We help young adults to overcome negative thoughts about themselves and build their self-reliance and social skills,” she says.
Sessions are led by a trained youth worker, who helps each member set goals, which they can practise at the youth club.
“I had trouble meeting with people, talking to them. It just gave me insane anxiety,” says 23-year-old Luke. “I would have a lot of nights at home where I didn’t have anyone to call or talk to.”
Luke says he was made to feel welcome at the group. “It’s nice to have somewhere I can hang out and it’s helped me feel better about myself.”
Stigma of loneliness
There are currently Join Us groups in 77 municipalities. Jolanda says limited budgets have slowed their expansion. However, the national campaign is now offering subsidies for areas that would like to include them.
All projects deal with stigma – it is still a prevailing belief that loneliness is some kind of personal failing, rather than a problem in society.
Different groups deal with it in different ways. The youth leaders at Join Us are encouraged to share their own experiences of loneliness to help normalise it.
However, some organisations like Oopoeh and Oma’s Soep barely mention the topic at all, to stop scaring off prospective members.
“No one likes to say that they are lonely,” Martijn Canters from Oma’s Soep explains.
Each year, One Against Loneliness tries to get people to talk about the issue during National Loneliness Week. Hundreds of special events are put on across the country, with many coalition partners working together. Oma’s Soep got a welcome boost this year, after Queen Maxima of the Netherlands joined them for a cooking session.
Although loneliness continues to be a pressing concern in the Netherlands, Mischa Stubenitsky thinks they are on the right track.
“The solution lies in collaboration. To tackle it the whole of society can and must contribute,” he says.
These groups hope to ensure that Bep de Bruin’s story isn’t replicated.
“I live alone and I used to joke to my upstairs neighbour, here’s a key, come in if there’s a bad smell,” Theo says, stroking Bickel’s soft head.
“But now I feel needed and wanted. I feel more normal. I’m part of the system again.”