Over the next 40 years the proportion of the population above the age of 65 in the European Union will almost double, rising from 17% in 2005 to 30% in 2050. Due to this inevitable demographic development, dignified ageing and caregiving is becoming an ever more relevant topic in the long-term future with regard to its social and economic implications as European healthcare systems are facing challenges of sustainability and increasing resource scarcity.

The cooperative movement should apprehend this challenge as a unique opportunity to play a leading role in addressing the effects of demographic change and elderly care, an issue that is of mounting concern to a huge number of Europeans.

Cooperatives generate social benefit

Cooperatives are autonomous associations of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual social, economic, and cultural benefit. They bring together civil society and local actors to deliver community needs. They are typically based on the cooperative values of “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, equity and solidarity” and the following principles, defined by the International Cooperative Alliance:

  • Voluntary and open membership;
  • Democratic member control;
  • Economic participation by members;
  • Autonomy and independence;
  • Education, training and information;
  • Cooperation among cooperatives;
  • Concern for community.

Cooperatives are dedicated to the values of openness, social responsibility and caring for others. They are distinguished from other forms of incorporation in that profit-making is balanced by the interests of the community. Cooperatives are active in all economic sectors, e.g. in food, health, housing… and (elderly) care.

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Care cooperatives are emerging all around Europe

Cooperatives are active player of the care sector in Europe. Due to a diversity of national regulations and socio-political contexts, their legal and organizational forms, economic activities and service provided vary widely from one country to another. Italy is the typical care cooperative example, social cooperatives assuming a substantial part of care services provided at the national level. In other countries such as Belgium or France, cooperatives are still emerging in the care sector, experimenting innovative financial and organizational mechanisms.

As there is no common definition of a care cooperative, one was proposed in the framework of iCareCoops project, “Baseline report on care cooperatives and communities”: “Care cooperatives support individuals, families or communities in promoting, maintaining or restoring health and minimizing the effects of illness and disability in the elderly. They provide different kinds of knowledge and services that help older people live as independently in their communities as possible.” They can adopt different forms, and develop a large range of services: an attempt of typology is proposed below, based on the cooperative organizations met so far.

Care cooperatives can be, among others:

  • Worker and social cooperatives, owned and controlled by their employees;
  • Consumer and housing cooperatives, owned and controlled by their service users / beneficiaries;
  • Multi-stakeholder cooperatives: members can be staff, users, neighbours, suppliers – anyone who is involved in what the cooperative does and how it does it.

Care cooperatives are found in the following economic sectors:

  • Elderly care: a generational approach is adopted. The cooperative provides services exclusively to older people, and/or their caregivers.
  • Healthcare or social care: their activities are developed on a sectorial basis, i.e. healthcare or social services. Their services are usually provided to any patient or dependent person, including older people.
  • Housing: housing services may be diverse and potentially include, among others and depending on the members, specific services for older people. Elderly care is an accessory activity of their business models and services.

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The cooperative movement can breathe new ambition into the care sector

Although care cooperatives demonstrate high resilience and efficiency, they have been confronted to a growing demand for care services combined with a reduction of public spending. In this context, anticipating the generational transition requires to foster local innovation and solidarity mechanism, but also to develop a common vision of what should be the future of care in Europe.

The creation of transnational flows of information and experience sharing among cooperatives, may stimulate the emergence of tools and projects aimed at translating the challenge of generational transition into new opportunities for large-scale cooperative innovation in Europe. Cooperatives know how to cooperate among each other, but also with other stakeholder: it is time to do so in the care sector.