On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Aurore Raguet, a fifty-year-old mail carrier, followed her route through the streets of Revin, a small French town near the Belgian border. The houses in Revin are sturdy boxes in gray, white, and the color of wet sand. Aurore stopped at one of them, making her way through its untended lawn to the front door.
Jeannine Titeux, the owner of the house, appeared after the fifth knock. “You’re early,” she said. Jeannine, who is eighty-eight years old, wore her short hair, dyed light brown, tucked behind her ears. She led Aurore inside, into a living room so rigorously decorated that it inspired good posture. Aurore took careful steps past a candelabra with blue candlesticks, a pyramid of green digestif glasses, and a miniature plaster nude on a fluted pillar. She smiled and glanced down at her tablet. Ordinarily, she uses it to scan packages. Now, it displayed a list of scripted lines designed to initiate conversation:
- Introduce yourself to the client and talk about a subject that might
- What weather we’re having!
- Did you watch TV last night?
- Have you received any visits lately?
Jeannine didn’t need any prompting. She launched into a story about the time when, as the wife of Revin’s mayor, she had directed the town’s ballet school; she had allowed a young girl with polio to dance. “I don’t know what became of her,” Jeannine said, addressing the room. Aurore listened. A month of these weekly visits plus an emergency-call button costs Jeannine €37.90. The fee is collected by La Poste, the French postal service, as part of a program called Veiller Sur Mes Parents (“Watch Over My Parents”). Every day except Sunday, postal workers inform the program’s subscribers, through an app, if their elderly relatives are “well”: if they require assistance with groceries, home repairs, outings, or “other needs.” Since V.S.M.P. was introduced, in 2017, about six thousand elderly women and fifteen hundred elderly men have been enrolled across the country. The program mandates no minimum visit time, but data collected by La Poste shows that conversations tend to last from six to fifteen minutes, long enough to soft- or hard-boil an egg. At the end of each visit, the elderly person signs the carrier’s tablet, providing proof of life as though accepting a package.
Jeannine has three children, ten grandchildren, and eighteen great-grandchildren. They didn’t sign her up for V.S.M.P., however, and they don’t receive the app’s automated updates; Jeannine subscribed herself, after a long holiday at home without her housekeeper. “I don’t want to be found two weeks after the fact,” she has told Aurore, about the prospect of her own death. Jeannine’s housekeeper comes six days a week, Aurore on the seventh.
“On Sunday, not even a car went by,” Jeannine told Aurore. “Not one car!”
“It’s calm,” Aurore said.
“It’s tedious!” Jeannine corrected.
Jeannine talked about what she used to do, what she can no longer do, and what she does now to make time pass. Every now and then, she wondered at the flow of the conversation: “I’m not sure why I’m talking about this,” she said. Aurore leaned back in her armchair, her head against a lace doily. She laughed in the right places and didn’t rush to fill the silences. “All those young girls I knew are old ladies now,” Jeannine said, trying to recollect the name of the dancer with polio. “Every life is a novel.” On the wall behind her, an acrylic self-portrait showed a much younger Jeannine smiling into the distance.
In a sense, Watch Over My Parents was created by accident. The service began in 2013, after a heat wave, when a number of overburdened city halls asked their local post offices to check on vulnerable and elderly residents. Éric Baudrillard, the director of V.S.M.P., told me that there has always been a “natural link between the French and their postal workers.” At first, La Poste was happy to do the check-ins for free. Soon afterward, though, it proposed a paid version of the program, called Cohésio, for insurance companies and municipal governments. The service was extended to the general public in 2017, under the name V.S.M.P.
Revin’s current population of six thousand is half of what it was when Aurore was growing up.
La Poste, which became a public-private hybrid in 2010, is adapting to changing conditions. It must continue to fulfill its mandate of uniform delivery to every address in France. But where, a decade ago, La Poste delivered eighteen billion letters, it now delivers less than ten billion. The cost of mailing a letter went up eight cents this year, to eighty-six cents; still, revenue from stamps alone can no longer support the postal service. As a result, the definition of “postal work” has been expanding. In some places, French postal workers now pick up prescriptions, return library books, and deliver flowers. Last year, only twenty eight per cent of La Poste’s revenue came from sending mail.
In France, as in many developed countries, people are living longer than ever before. By 2035, a third of the population will be over sixty. Millions of people over the age of seventy-five already live alone. As the population ages and disperses, with more young people moving away from their birthplaces, traditional safety nets—family, community, the government—may not be enough to support the elderly. V.S.M.P. is a response to this grim prognosis; La Poste sees opportunity in “la silver économie.”
On a Tuesday morning this summer, I watched Aurore, one of the few female mail carriers and among the oldest employees at Revin’s branch of La Poste, load a yellow electric bicycle with the day’s mail. Aurore has broad cheekbones, blue-gray eyes, and a commanding, contagious energy. She refers to her co-workers who are in their thirties—most of whom make deliveries by car—as “the kids.”
We set off for the center of Revin, up a low hill above a horseshoe bend in the Meuse River. For the most part, the view was green in all directions, dotted with rapeseed fields and forests home to wild boars. There are still factories for Hermès bags and corrugated cardboard in the region, but Aurore told me that Revin, where she has lived her entire life, “has everything except jobs.” The current population of six thousand is half of what it was when she was growing up. In the nineteen-seventies, the now-defunct factory where her father worked exported tens of thousands of bathtubs each month. Fifteen years ago, hundreds of employees in one of the town’s factories produced an Electrolux washing machine every twelve seconds. Today, in the same building, twenty-four people assemble motors for electric blinds.
Aurore delivered mail to a two-star hotel; to the office for the Fight Against Illiteracy; to one of the town’s two butcher shops; to the jewelry store. The owner of a store selling lottery tickets and hard candies announced that she would be retiring at the end of the week: Did Aurore have the necessary paperwork to reroute her mail?
Since V.S.M.P. was introduced, in 2017, about six thousand elderly women and fifteen hundred elderly men have been enrolled across the country.
During certain hours of the day, some Revin residents leave their houses unlocked so that Aurore can let herself in and hand-deliver their mail.
Walking her bike through the open-air market, between stands for local honey and off-brand phone chargers, Aurore received unsolicited summer fruits. People stopped her in the street to ask after their mail; invariably, without checking her bag, Aurore remembered whether they had received any letters. She heard the same joke again and again—“They’re only bills anyway!”—and laughed warmly each time.
She cycled past modest row houses, scanning for clothespins attached to front gates or to the metal flaps of mailboxes. The clothespin signal—which indicates that one of her elderly clients, who can’t make the trip to the post office, has mail for her to pick up or would like to purchase stamps—predates V.S.M.P. “I invented this system so they wouldn’t have to watch out for me all day,” she explained.
Aurore speaks quickly and assuredly, with the kind of breezy conclusiveness you’d want from a nurse or a pilot. When her sentences run the risk of tapering off, she punctuates them with a short, decisive voilà. Over the years, she explained, her professional role has become more personal: “I got along well with people, and they got to know me well, and so . . . voilà.” She is, in many ways, a model of the nostalgic ideal on which V.S.M.P. is based. A survey commissioned by La Poste found that French citizens rank mail carriers among their “favorite figures encountered in daily life,” second only to bakers. During certain hours of the day, people leave their houses unlocked so that Aurore can let herself in and hand-deliver their mail. One older man considering the service told me that V.S.M.P. reminded him of the “doorbell culture” of his youth, when people would drop by unannounced for casual coffees. (With V.S.M.P., of course, he’s entitled to a refund if no one rings his bell.)
Aurore stopped along her route to drink a glass of orange juice with Yvette, who wore a floral house dress and walked with a cane. She briefly visited Joelle, staying long enough for Joelle’s grandson to model each of his virtual-reality headsets. A few years ago, when Joelle had cancer, Aurore began checking in on her. Now it’s a matter of habit. “We got used to seeing each other,” Aurore said. She knows that “some people just deliver mail, period, nothing else,” and is quick to insist that she doesn’t hold it against them. Even if other mail carriers don’t “share the same appreciation for the human touch,” she told me, many of them keep a compassionate watch from a distance.
For La Poste, the modest success of V.S.M.P.—the number of subscribers is lower than anticipated, but only slightly—has been tempered by considerable criticism. Postal unions have challenged La Poste for monetizing an activity that was once done for free; they also argue that the fee is exclusionary, barring those who might benefit most from the service but cannot afford it. La Poste, in turn, sees V.S.M.P. as a way to standardize and preserve an admirable tradition that has come under threat. “The free time on a route allocated to these informal services was only made possible thanks to a surplus of revenue,” the C.E.O. of La Poste, Philippe Wahl, told the newspaper La Croix, in an interview. When there were fewer old people and La Poste was more profitable, it was easier to stop when the clothespins beckoned.
In 2012, Joe Dickinson was recovering from a stroke at home in Jersey, the largest of the Channel Islands, when he had an idea for the local post office, where he worked as an “innovator.” Much like V.S.M.P., the resulting service, Call&Check, enlists mail carriers to monitor the sick and elderly. Unlike caretakers or social workers, who “sort of intruded into their life on official business,” Dickinson said that mail carriers offered a “relaxed form of connecting with people who are particularly lonely and isolated.” Loneliness, he explained, is the new smoking; epidemiologically speaking, it’s as unhealthy as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. (Though there is broad agreement among researchers about the downsides of loneliness, there is some disagreement about whether we are in the midst of what many journalists have called a “loneliness epidemic.”) The Call&Check doorstep visit—free for those who qualify, £6.75 for everyone else—is now offered island-wide.
In the U.K., the privately owned Royal Mail has piloted its own version of the program, called Safe and Connected, funded by the Home Office, which is responsible for immigration, security, and policing. (In addition to health-related queries, Safe and Connected’s emissaries ask, “Are you having problems with anyone bothering you?”) As of last year, South Koreans with parents over the age of sixty-five can sign their elders up for visits from postal workers, who send relatives photo updates. In Japan, monthly conversations between mail carriers and senior citizens have been available since 2013. For several years, Finnish post offices offered seasonally appropriate services, such as lawn-mowing or leaf-raking, on a weekly basis; now there is a year-round “befriending” service, through which elderly customers can request long walks through subarctic snowscapes with a postal worker, described as an “outdoor buddy.” (Several American companies have designed smartphone apps for checking in on the elderly—Snug Safety, for example, prompts users to press a large green check mark on their phones at the same time every day—but such systems rely on touch screens, rather than human touch.)
The commercials for V.S.M.P. strive for an upbeat, playful tone. They feature adult children who are conscientious and resourceful—they aren’t outsourcing their filial responsibilities so much as seeking the best for their parents. In one TV spot, an elderly woman in a knit cardigan remarks, incredulously, “We don’t have children just so that they can take care of us!” She laughs and sets down a tray of coffee and biscuits for her postal worker. The program’s slogan is: “For your peace of mind, we’ll care for your parents’ peace of mind.” There’s no way around the sadness of the situations portrayed in the advertisements. Still, they present V.S.M.P. as a commonsense way of coping with modern life’s atomized reality. The program assumes the good faith of all involved; it lightens the burden of caring too much, not too little.
At the post office in Revin, a man in slippers bought downloadable stamps and a young mother collected welfare benefits. People in line fanned themselves with messages that could not be sent from their phones. Aurore was working in the back in a fluorescent-lit storeroom. The night before, in a nearby city, the next day’s mail had been machine-sorted; she preferred to sort it a second time, rearranging the letters in the order in which she would deliver them. Watching her thoughtful and meticulous movements, it was easy to forget that the envelopes mostly contained bank statements and promotional flyers. When Aurore had first started her job, in 1998, personal correspondence already accounted for just about five per cent of the mail delivered by La Poste.
When Aurore first started her job, in 1998, personal correspondence already accounted for less than five per cent of the mail delivered by La Poste.
That afternoon, Aurore visited Jeannine Titeux’s neighbor, Monique Jaspart, the eighty-nine-year-old former secretary of Revin’s town hall, who lives on property that her parents bought before the Second World War. Aurore entered the house through a side door without knocking. Monique was waiting at the kitchen table beside a vase of papery beige flowers, a collection of supermarket coupons, and some roast chicken. She offered Aurore a chair and pulled up a stool for herself. She liked to be ready, she explained, spinning toward the counter and miming hostess gestures.
Monique, who has delicate features and a voice so high that it often cracks, has lived in Revin for her entire life—much of it alone. She and Aurore met more than a decade ago, when Aurore first started on Monique’s route. Monique told her to stop in “when you are thirsty, when you are cold, whenever you need,” and they’ve had coffee at least once a week ever since. Monique speaks with strict enunciation and dated conjugations, but she has long since shifted to the informal tu with Aurore. “I worked my whole professional life, and I understand that people who work need a little smile, a little welcome,” Monique said.
“Madame Titeux wanted me to tell you that she says hello,” Aurore said, leafing through the local newspaper on the table. “Maybe it would be good if you gave her a call.”
“Yes, yes,” Monique agreed. She stood to return a stick of melting butter to her Electrolux refrigerator.
A copy of L’Ardennais, the local newspaper, lay open on the table; an article announced that the Revin branch of Monique’s bank would be closing. “The money that they have of mine there, in stock, what will they do with it?” Monique asked. By way of an answer, Aurore read the article aloud.
In the past year, Monique has encountered various “problems”—a fall in the garden, a slip on the stairs. She describes them as if they were avoidable mistakes, the result of her absentmindedness. A few months ago, her refrigerator door came off in her hands. She fell and, from the floor, considered different strategies for standing up without slipping on the yolk- and milk-covered tiles. When Aurore heard this story, she recommended V.S.M.P., in part for the security of the emergency-alert system, which is included in the program’s “premium” offering. Monique’s nephew visits once a week, but her daughter lives on the Atlantic coast and her neighbors are often away. “Don’t you see?” Aurore asked. “If you hadn’t been able to get up, how long would you have stayed there?”
Recently, Monique broke her hip, and has since been confined to the ground floor of her house. “When I have a little problem, I think, ‘Ah, I’ll tell it to Aurore!’ ” she said.
Monique doesn’t always know the whereabouts of her new emergency-call button, which looks like a waterproof watch with gray plastic where the time would be. Still, she wore it that afternoon, assuring Aurore that she wouldn’t take it off.
When they first met, Monique felt charitable inviting Aurore in. Now she feels that the reverse is true: Aurore is doing her a favor. “She brought a breath of fresh air straight from the center of Revin,” she told me. “When I have a little problem, I think, ‘Ah, I’ll tell it to Aurore!’ ” Recently, Monique broke her hip, and has since been confined to the ground floor of her house. Monique’s daughter, a retired teacher with two children of her own, discussed transitioning to daily visits with Aurore and planned to call the regional office to confirm the upgrade. But, at €112.40 a month, daily visits turned out to be too expensive.
“How would she do it, though?” Monique sighed.
“It’s fine the way it is now,” Aurore reassured her. “We’ll leave it like it is.”
Aurore will continue to visit on Tuesdays; she cannot now, in fairness to La Poste and the other V.S.M.P. subscribers, stop in casually on other days, as she might have before. On the other hand, with V.S.M.P., visits to Monique are guaranteed. When Aurore went to Corsica for summer vacation, a substitute mailman stopped by. (“A young man, I believe,” Monique reported. “He was pleasant enough. But it’s not the same thing.”)
The visit came to an end. Aurore held out her tablet for Monique to sign, reminding her not to use her nail to inscribe her signature. Monique signed the screen with her fingertip, in tight, slanted loops.
Over lunch in the post-office break room, as Aurore ate careful spoonfuls of yogurt, I asked her if she could imagine one day becoming a client of the service. “I have a son,” she responded abruptly, perhaps a little offended. He is twenty-eight and lives with Aurore, along with her seventy-eight-year-old father, in a house across the river, not far from the marina and the nearly vacant factory. There will be no need for any postal worker other than herself.