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UN Old Age Report: Sweden best! But what life do pensioners, the elderly, actually have?

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UN Old-Age Report: Sweden best! But what life do pensioners, the elderly, actually have?
by Ritt Goldstein

Dalarna, Sweden - Sweden is the world's best country for the elderly, a UN report saying so this October!   But, some days before news of the UN's findings on Sweden's 'leadership' broke, another news story exploded here - it was the story of an 84-year-old woman's suicide.   One of the large national papers, Expressen, headlined: 'Refused nursing home -- then the woman took her life' ("Nekades aldreboende - da tog kvinnan sitt liv").  

The article revealed that the elderly woman in question had spent 'several years' trying to get a place in a nursing home, 'with her husband'.   The article also reported the chief of the subsequent police investigation as observing that: 'It is tragic. And distressing, I think, that two old people shouldn't be able to live together.' ("Det ar tragiskt. Och beklammande, kan jag tycka, att inte tva gamla manniskor ska kunna fa bo tillsammans.")  And, Expressen reported that the suicide occurred when the municipality refused permission for the couple to live at a nursing home 'together'.

A further quote from the Expressen article observes, 'The grandchildren believe the municipality has tried to silence what happened.' ("Barnbarnen anser kommunen har forsokt att tysta ner det som hant.")  

It's reported that the elderly woman had jumped to her death from her apartment's balcony, doing so upon hearing the opinion of the two town care officers who had come to visit her, jumping while they were still in her apartment.  Expressen also noted that red roses and candles lay where she had fallen.  

I must again emphasize that the UN report found Sweden is presently the best place on the planet for seniors, the best!   But, what does that mean?

It was early October when 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 have imagined Sweden as an elderly person's paradise, I do hope you're sitting down, perhaps with smelling salts handy.   As for 'expectations', care issues do demand a big part of elderly concerns.

Care, caring, and compassion?

'Care home staff weigh diapers to save money', read a headline from The Local (Sweden's English-language news site) highlighting an 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 charging: '"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)."

The UN report had come 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' - it observed that the US ranked eighth.   While I had never much considered the questions that the UN 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.  

For any with hope of 'poor reporting', Dagens Nyheter (DN) is the so-called 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, and my experience is that they seem to do a pretty good job of it.   I'll add that the 'diaper' 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 reporting: "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.

Of course, this is not to say that every elderly Swede has faced similar circumstances, but Sweden is a nation of only about 9.6 million people, not many more than New York City's 8.3 million.   And of about fifteen 'ordinary' Swedes I personally asked about how Sweden's elderly were treated, not a single person said the country's seniors are doing well.   But, for those seniors that are 'affluent', I am also personally aware that Sweden can be the 'paradise' which the UN findings might suggest to some.    

A 'dividing' society?

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 Sweden's Radio ('Sveriges Radio', SR - Sweden's version of the BBC) 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".   And another Left Party MP, one that's deeply involved with 'seniors' issues', added more still.

"The big change in Sweden now is that the difference between the rich and the poor is getting larger... the government cuts the taxes and you have less for welfare", observed MP Eva Olofsson.   "The first thing this government did was to destroy the social insurance, and then they used that money to cut taxes... I believe that meant about 140 billion kroner less", Olofsson charged.   And today, it's "much harder to get a place in a nursing home... it's too difficult".

Just days ago, a story from my former Swedish 'hometown' of Falun also made national headlines, though I see this story as one notable for the comment on elderly care that it makes.   The news dealt with a 95-year-old pensioner -- in a municipal nursing home -- that was denied slices of fried pork with his meal, despite a reported written agreement to the contrary.   And while that may seem trivial in comparison to the other events described, the elderly gentleman in question was quoted in a local paper, Dala-Demokraten, as charging 'they don't care about what I say' ("de bryr sig inte om vad jag sager").   To my eyes, behind the assorted headlines and quotes above is a single problem, a problem this gentleman from Falun spoke to, a problem of 'caring'...or rather, failing to.

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 our world's elderly can expect?   But naturally, there's more to living than simply 'care', assuming one has the health and 'means' to enjoy it.

Retirement, one's '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 Lofven, to comment that he would like 'to scrap the premium pension system. "PPM has become a very expensive flop"', reported Sveriges 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 "below the poverty line".  

About a year ago I was I at a supermarket here and encountered a security guard I recall as standing by the store's razor blades.   When I asked why he needed to guard them, he informed me that professional thieves and 'older men' sometimes tried stealing them -- the thieves for profit, the older men as they lacked the money for a purchase.  

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'.  

Notably, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) ran an Associated Press (AP) story on the UN report, "Elderly populations too much for most countries, UN says".   The AP interviewed an 80-year-old Sto ckholm resident, Marianne Blomberg, for their article, the story's final paragraph observing: '"I go to lectures and museums and the theatre and those kinds of things, but I probably have to stop that soon because it gets terribly expensive," she says. "If you want to be active like me, it is hard. But to sit home and stare at the walls doesn't cost anything."'

Not that many years ago, I was told that there was a time when elderly Swedes might 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...
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I am an American investigative political journalist living in Sweden, and have lived in Sweden since July 1997. My work has appeared fairly widely, including in America's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Sweden's Aftonbladet, Austria's (more...)
 

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