Growing Old in Sweden

Dalarna, Sweden.

It’s been some days since the United Nations Population Fund report emerged, an elderly advocacy group called HelpAge International partnering in the effort to highlight the wellbeing of elderly in 91 countries.  Since discovering that Sweden is now officially the best place in the world to grow old (and at 62 I’m not so young), it’s taken me some time to sufficiently recover from the shock.  For those that might imagine Sweden as an elderly person’s paradise, I do hope you’re sitting down (perhaps with smelling salts handy), because if this is ‘the best’…

The UN report came to this journalist’s attention in a deluge of mainstream media coverage, the Washington Post’s article titled ‘These are the best and worst countries to be elderly’.  While I had never much considered the questions this report addresses, I’ve spent quite a bit of time considering the report’s implications, the indirect commentary upon what it suggests our planet’s seniors can expect.  As for those expectations, ‘care’ issues demand a big part of elderly concerns.

Care and compassion?

‘Care home staff weigh diapers to save money’, read a headline from The Local, Sweden’s major English-language news site, highlighting one elderly care scandal that broke here a couple of years ago.  Privatization of care has indeed instilled a profit motive in those firms ‘devoted to’ our seniors, with a quote from The Local’s article reading: ‘“We’re not allowed to change the diaper until it has reached its full capacity. The aim is clearly to keep consumption down and save money,” an anonymous member of staff told daily Dagens Nyheter (DN).’

For any with hope of this being a matter of ‘poor reporting’, Dagens Nyheter (DN) is the Swedish ‘paper of record’, what one might call Sweden’s version of The New York Times.  The Local features Swedish news stories that are put into English.  I’ll add that this story is far from alone.

Other stories from The Local included: ‘Maltreatment reports increasing in Swedish geriatric care’ and ‘Nurse pressed vomit down patient’s throat’, the article summary of this latter piece reading: “Elderly patients at a nursing home had their own vomit pressed down their throats and were given hard pinches and slaps.”  But there’s more, with last year not exactly being the best either.  ‘Care home reported for maggots in man’s foot’ and ‘Elderly woman’s maggot-infested leg amputated’ – but two of 2012’s tragedies.

Perhaps illustrating where Sweden currently stands, in May this journalist interviewed Ulla Andersson, an MP from Sweden’s Left Party.  At the time, she observed that: “If you look at the elder care, there are 12,000 less employees.”  And, though the population has been steadily growing, on 28 September Swedish Radio reported the number of hospital beds in the country dropped almost “2,500 over the past decade”, to about 25,000.

Andersson charged that the present government has “destroyed the (social) insurance” in order to “pay for tax reductions”.

I now imagine that readers better understand what I meant by “sitting down (perhaps with smelling salts handy)”.  As horrific as some of these revelations are, what does it say when — according to a UN report — this is ‘the best’ which the elderly can expect?  But naturally, there’s more to living than simply ‘care’, assuming one has the health and ‘means’ to enjoy it.

Retirement, ones ‘Golden Years’

Poor Swedish pensioner shoplifts to eat’, read a Local headline from this July, a quote from the article reading: “Sweden’s pensioners often live on a tight budget, with LO union newspaper Arbetet pointing out in June that one in three retired Swedes are living below the poverty line.”

As in many countries today, ‘reforms’ have had a substantive impact on Sweden, only this August prompting the leader of the Social Democrats (Sweden’s largest political party), Stefan Löfven, to comment that he would like ‘to scrap the premium pension system. “PPM has become a very expensive flop”’, according to Swedish Radio.  However, some might say this ‘pension problem’ has arguably existed for years.

‘Pension fund favours banks not savers’, was a Local headline in 2009, the article summary reading: “Sweden’s banks are the only winners from the Premium Pension Authority (PPM) fund system. Despite plunging portfolio values fund managers have managed to pull in billions of kronor from the scheme.”  Meanwhile, a third of Swedish pensioners, pensioners in ‘the best country in the world to grow old in’, are reported to struggle in poverty.

In what some see as our ‘brave new world’ of ‘Social Darwinism’, if things are as described in ‘the best’ of states, one can only wonder what that means for those elsewhere.  I’ve seldom felt the kind of emptiness this ‘victory’ for Sweden seems to suggest, and can only speculate upon what’s being suggested when such a report effectively portrays this country as ‘the ideal’.

Not that many years ago, I was told that there was a time when elderly Swedes would simply go off in the woods, commit suicide.  I won’t speculate if that’s an ‘ideal’ some in this world would like to see championed, done so should too many realize what the promise of a ‘dignified old age’ has come to mean…

Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.


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Ritt Goldstein is an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden.

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