Fika Long Past Fifty

The family I stay with in Sweden includes their mor (mother) who is 92.

Sitting with her at fika today reminded me how many people all over the world are coping with at-home elder care, and how incredibly difficult that reality is for everyone.

This includes the Swedish, who have a very good social system, but certainly not the free, universal healthcare Americans might think they do.

Although I think it’s important not to idealise Sweden’s health care system, it has to be said that their attitude, if not the economic reality, of dealing with the elderly is vastly different in Sweden than it is in America. In the States, we have a tendency to paint people-friendly Sweden with a roseate glow, thinking that it’s a golden land where the streets are paved with offers for entirely free healthcare and education. In reality, that idealistic view of this country contains a little truth and a lot of inaccuracy.

The elderly are encouraged to stay in their own homes as long as possible. The kind of care that’s available (which is unheard of in the States, where we don’t believe in the kind of heavy taxation the Swedes mostly seem to be willing to pay for) involves having someone come into the house every few hours.

This oil lamp, converted to electricity many years ago, has hung over the dining table for generations.

The mother in my host family has a small monthly pension based on her years of work as a household cleaner, and her low income entitles her to certain free services. The family complaint here, though, is that caretakers come and go; the face you saw yesterday you might never see again, and you can’t count on continuity.

While caretakers come regularly, from what I’ve seen, the funds aren’t there for live-in help, nor does the individual caretaker have the time to sit with the mother and make sure she eats and drinks. Homecare workers are in and out, their supervision perfunctory due to the amount of clients they must visit if they are to do their jobs. Even so, their faces are invariably sunny and cheerful, uttering the expected hej du as they come and go. It’s a very humane system with very human limitations.

Fika goes on and on: Princess cake, her favorite, made of marzipan, light creamy filling, and strawberries, for their mother's 91st birthday.

This means adult children must pick up the slack if their mother is to stay in her home as long as possible. Perhaps because of the burden this places on busy lives, and because of the increasing costs of maintaining a house for one person, many older people in Sweden are choosing to go into elder care housing.

If their mother had been working all her life, or her husband were still alive, the higher income would make her ineligible for free in-home care. She does have to pay if she goes to the hospital; hospital services, including prescriptions, are not free in Sweden. At one time, I had the Socialist fantasy that Sweden offered free healthcare to everyone, but that fantasy is simply not true, nor is Sweden a Socialist country anymore. Instead, it’s dominated by the liberal Social Democrats party, who fall closer to American Democrats in sentiment and intentions than they do Republicans.

Unlike the States, however, the Swedes divide their votes up amongst seven major parties, no one of which is in complete control of the country. Where America limits choice, Sweden embraces it; but that doesn’t mean Sweden is a Utopia, although it seems pretty close at times.

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