February 15, 2024 | Sandra Pierce


Elmo wasn’t prepared for the response to what he thought was an innocuous question.

Everyone’s favourite furry red monster sparked a frenzy when he asked on X (previously known as Twitter), “How is everybody doing?” The response was huge, the post had millions of views and sparked a global discussion about mental health.

People unloaded very real problems and the avalanche of responses underscored what the 21st Surgeon General of the United States recently described as “an epidemic on par with tobacco use and obesity, loneliness.”

Being socially disconnected has a marked increase in depression and anxiety but also in heart disease, dementia, and premature death. Like food and water, we need social connection for survival.

Loneliness among seniors, in particular, is considered a global threat, so much so that last November, the World Health Organization designated it as a global public health concern.


The story of David Gill from Sebastopol, California, came to mind after reading about the loneliness that Elmo tapped into. During COVID I discovered the nonprofit online magazine Reasons to be Cheerful founded by artist and musician David Byrne, who pronounced it “Part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world, a tonic for tumultuous times.”

Introduced as quite possibly the richest man in town, semi-retired health care administrator Mr. Gill had banked the most valuable currency in the world: time. He currently has 480 hours in his savings account at the local “time bank”.

In brief, a time bank does with time what other banks do with money: It stores and trades it. For every hour you give to your community, you receive an hour credit. Think of it as a barter system in which a community of people trade services, such as accompanying someone to a doctor’s appointment in exchange, at some future date, for tax-preparation help from a retired accountant.

Gill likes to offer his expertise with computer programming, and in return he asks for help when he needs a ride to the airport or someone to transport heavy furniture. He rattles off the first few of many examples: “Steve, who lives on the next block, drove me and my partner to the Santa Rosa airport. Ken fixed the icemaker in our refrigerator, and Elaine did some electrical work.”


Research by the National Institute on Aging released last December found that 58% of older adults have experienced loneliness, but 41% of Canadians 50 plus are at risk of it.

Time banks go beyond the value of a mere transaction. They are building social capital. “I’ve made wonderful friends I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and we now invite each other to our garden parties,” says Gill. “It’s about making community and being a part of the community. You can’t put a price on that stuff.”

Some cities look to time banks as a model to support an aging population. In St. Gallen, Switzerland, only members over the age of 50 may join the local Stiftung Zeitvorsorge, or “Foundation Time Care”. Founded in 2011, 320 members have banked more than 80,000 hours.

Members regularly help seniors run errands, shop for groceries, take them to the doctor or simply keep them company. Here, as in Sebastopol, the city guarantees the program, hoping that it will help seniors to stay in their homes and live independently longer because 75% of locals said in a poll that they hoped to stay in their homes as long as possible.


The idea of time as a bankable currency goes back to a Japanese seamstress and activist, Teruko Mizushima, who traded her sewing skills for fresh vegetables during the Pacific War in the early 1940s. In 1973, she started the first “Volunteer Labour Bank” that soon included thousands of members.

In the US, the civil rights lawyer, Edgar Cahn, who worked as a speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy and executive assistant to Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, rediscovered the idea of time banks as allies to fight poverty in the early 1960s, when money for social programs had dried up. He later coined the term “Time Dollars” and in 1995, he founded the nonprofit, now known as TimeBanks.Org.

Nobody keeps track of the exact number, but thousands of time banks with several hundred thousand members have been established in at least thirty-seven countries, including China, Malaysia, Japan, Senegal, Argentina, Brazil and in Europe, with over 3.2 million exchanges. There are probably more than 40,000 members in over 500 time banks in the US.


Timebanking has proven to be a tool that forms bonds between strangers and brings people together in unforeseen and unpredictable alliances. There is an inbuilt ‘multiplier effect’ as one act of kindness leads to another. Having purpose and feeling value can begin to cure social isolation.

Ever since I needed to be the advocate for my dad when he was diagnosed with dementia, I have worried about who will be there for me when I’m ultimately alone. Timebanking strikes me as having created a revolution in how we can connect and care for one another. Implementing and supporting time banks can lead to a more connected, inclusive, and resilient society.

Elmo wrote a simple tweet that exposed widespread existential dread. I think he and everyone who lives on Sesame Street would agree timebanking is a solution whose time has come.

If you want to learn more about Timebanking in Canada