Italy Is ‘No Country for the Elderly’

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After graduating in Economics and Commerce, Silvia Turzio gained a twenty-year experience in the fields of Business Strategy and Marketing Management working for insurance companies. Her following role as the Marketing and Development director of an Italian leading social care non-profit company showed her a new direction, which she took in 2015 when, together with two business partners, she founded VillageCare, counting thirty-five shareholders today.

VillageCare is a ground-breaking social care start-up, the first orientation and advising portal offering solutions to families that assist old and frail parents.

Selected as the Best Start-Up of the Year 2015 by the Municipality of Milan (within the FabriQ tender) and Impact Hub, VillageCare counts 25,000 monthly unique visitors on its portal and assists over 8,000 families.

village care

We have asked Silvia what VillageCare is and how it works.

VillageCare was developed from a lab-based project.

We tried to put our idea down in black and white, and we asked qualified professionals to assess it. We challenged ourselves, and we attracted interest from families and investors alike.

We thus invested our savings in this company in order to create the industry’s first technological platform.

I like to think of VillageCare as a digital compass that guides families caring for their old frail dear ones. Our portal offers free information and tutorials for children and relatives caring for the elderly. It also gives access to an advisory model for anyone who is struggling. If we usually seek professional solutions and advice to face particular moments in our life, we wondered, why not to create an advisory model for this specific time, too?

We did crucial work to create a network of social care partners, and two years ago, we finally opened a third track – we are bringing this service to businesses’ welfare systems, insurance platforms and public and private healthcare.

What convinced you to invest in this sector?

All my previous experience was essential, starting from my banking and financial background, which has taught me how to study future trends. Our task back then was to imagine how Western countries could tackle such a poor welfare, social and relational situation. My non-profit work opened my eyes to families’ need and greed for information. It was on the field that I realized how big its potential was.

We need to consider that, besides an ageing population, there are families. We are talking of roughly 20 million people that could potentially be interested in our project.

Caring for the elderly is something women often do. Your start-up also relies on an all-female team. A coincidence?

Right now, in Italy, women are the ones caring for the elderly in 80% of cases. All the female associates of our company are also caring for the frail people in their families. It is what we stand out for, and what makes us more credible.

However, demographic data shows that there will be many more single people in the future, which will determine that men will also have to face such scenarios. There is an international trend that sees men starting to take on elder care too.

What are the requests that you most frequently receive?

I would say that we need to make a difference between the pre-pandemic and the post-pandemic period.

Before the pandemic, operational help was surely the most requested; now, however, we are asked for advice in 50% of cases. During the pandemic, women lost all help they had. In 30% of cases, caregivers are gone. A long work will be necessary in order to start again. There is a strong need for psychological support, people crave to be listened to; we help them make their choices, and optimize their budget decisions at home.

A first evaluation 5 years after this adventure started?

The first years of a project like ours entail testing and planning; you need to study behaviors thoroughly and to collect data.

After five years, we have made our own assessment of the situation, and we have understood that families are not the only ones at the core of this initiative – accelerators and companies are, too. This is something that has been important for us to realize.

The other remarkable result is having acquired a start-up’s typical mindset – optimizing results with few resources. It has been a crucial achievement, and a great satisfaction.

When I embarked on this adventure in 2015, I had all the tools I needed, but I was lacking an entrepreneurial spirit. Now I have developed it.

I have met difficulties, and I still do; the biggest is related to the human capital.

I have the professional skills and abilities I need, but I do not have the economic capacity that is necessary to develop them.

Then, naturally, there are worries about the cash flows. If you invent a new job, you also need to invent ways to draw capitals. When you have no reputation or history, you need to leverage something else: credibility and solid scenarios.

Longevity is surely a positive sign for our society, as it means a better, longer life; at the same, though, it brings along challenges and opportunities that we need to fully understand and take advantage of efficiently. What advice would you give to investors in your sector?

I would surely suggest that they consider a long-term vision. We have no energies to waste, we need to focus on what is key: the environment, welfare and the healthcare. These fields should receive more resources than others. Unfortunately, today, there are investors who care more for short-term speculation instead.

village care

We have found ourselves competing with food home delivery start-ups! Certainly important in this period, but how have these start-ups improved society’s well-being in the medium and long run? This should be the vision, a planning up to 30 or 40 years.

What is your vision?

As per the trend we are witnessing, people who are now 60 or 70 years old will get to old age in a different way. Technology will help us. In the next fifteen years, smart technology will greatly support us. It is all already there, but it needs applying. There are technological companies that have been remarkably investing in this. It is a market that still remains hidden, but it is moving. Domotics will help us live better by reducing the costs, and we will have the human resources we need, but they will specialized. We will no longer need to have someone constantly present, but occupational therapists will keep us entertained. Our home will be our ideal haven, and only when really needed will we turn to healthcare providers, general medicine associated firms offering diagnose and nursing services 12 hours a day. Residential facilities will necessarily have to change too. We will need residences with shared services, a co-housing, or something midway. Being alone, I decide to associate with others in a sort of social housing, as it is already happening in Northern Europe. At the moment, unfortunately, Italy is way far from conceiving models like the North European or Japanese ones, even on a real estate level – building comfortable residences meant for socializing that feel like home, where everyone can have their own apartment, specifically designed for the elderly receiving healthcare assistance regularly or on demand. This is the road to take.

What resources will be used?

Right now in Italy, out of the overall 200 billion euros spent for healthcare, only 10% goes to elder care.

I believe the solution is building connections with insurances in a social key, reaching an agreement between the government and the regions on one side and private insurance companies on the other.

village care

A mixed solution in order to help partially self-sufficient or not self-sufficient people. Long-term care, which is being much talked about, is an ideal solution offering intergenerational solidarity and reducing the costs.

What about your future projects?

As an African saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child.

This is why, in order to serenely enjoy the third and fourth ages, the elderly need a city, a world that can support them in their frailties.

In Italy, there is a big communication problem. We talk much, sometimes too much; we talk about cancer, bullying, violence, but not about the elder care. It is still taboo, especially in the cases of neurodegenerative diseases like dementia or Alzheimer.

We believe we need to manage our elder relatives independently, and it is hard for us to talk about it. We tend to avoid asking for help. In fact, we are not ready to be parents to our parents, and we do not have the necessary tools either.

The first challenge is to keep developing ways to help families; it is a social challenge, besides an economic one. Sometimes, by systematizing the solutions a family has found, other families can be helped. Listening is essential.

The second is surely to look for liaisons with the finance and insurance world.

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Maria Mele
Maria Mele
After 39 years working in Sales and Communication for one of the most prominent Insurance Group worldwide, I presently dedicate my time to what I like best: fine arts and literature, passionately looking for the beauty that surrounds me.

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