by Ritt Goldstein
Copyright October 2013
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 äldreboende - då 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 är tragiskt. Och beklämmande, kan jag tycka, att inte två gamla människor ska kunna få bo tillsammans.”) 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 försökt att tysta ner det som hänt.”)
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 which 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 which 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.