Last November, as I prepared to leave Acadiana and gallivant across this Nordic wonderland, I worried about leaving my elderly father in town all alone. My concerns had little to do with his physical or mental state. He’s whip smart, golfs several times a week, grows the world’s best tomatoes, perfectly grills rib-eyes every Sunday, loves a good crossword, is a puzzle master and has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball and football stats. My worries about him alone in town were rooted in American attitudes and treatment of the elderly. In many ways our seniors are invisible.
I committed to keenly observing Nordic seniors. My focus was not on the recently retired, but men and women seventy, eighty and ninety somethings. Finns seem to always top the charts and lead the way in finding innovative solutions- what did they have in place to promote quality senior living? Months later, I can report that some things look the same- like the senior living apartments and elderly care facilities. Turku and the surrounding areas actually have quite a few. These are for Finns who need extra medical attention or are no longer able to live alone. From what I’ve noticed, the quality of the facilities is not significantly different from the apartments that so many Turku city dwellers call home. A few complexes look very comfortable- resembling the big luxury complexes all over Houston. Others senior housing blocks are more basic. And while a few are near the city center, most are in the suburbs or smaller coastal towns like Rauma and Ruissalo- similar to what we have in place in the US.
Yet, there is a marked difference in the visibility of aging Finns – unapologetically going about their business alongside other city dwellers. Finns seem to stay visible decades after retirement- long after many older Americans have limited their outings to Walmart and the drugstore or church and the early bird special. I have noted Turku seniors out and about in the city center during the day- even during the harsh winters. Even these streets that are often uneven brick and cobblestone don’t scare them off. They shop. They bank. They go to the library. They sauna. They go to the salon or barber. They have coffee in bistros and lunches in department stores. They ride the bus. They are visible and move elbow to elbow among teens, young mothers, college students, working men, businesswomen and preschoolers on outings.
Turku has measures in place to ensure that elderly residents can enjoy a quality, independent lifestyle for as long as possible. Changes in bone and muscle mass are as much a part of aging as wrinkles and gray hair, so maintaining mobility is and important consideration. I’ve observed a surprising number of seniors still pounding the pavement with the help of a variety of mobility aids. These range from ski pole-type canes (with handy winter ice pick tips) to heavy duty rolling walkers. Many of these seniors in fact seem to struggle- their movements often lack grace and can be slow and hesitant. At first, I cringed watching an older gentleman board a bus or hobbling across a busy street. I was fearful of someone slipping on the ice. Later, I appreciated that he is still moving on his own. In the US, most of these pensioners would have been placed in wheelchairs or the scooters hawked on television. I’ve rarely seen American seniors heroically struggling as they move about the downtown area. But I’ve seen lots of scooter and wheelchair propelled shopping. The choices related to mobility have an impact on visibility.
Premature wheelchair or scooter use is limiting. Instead of improving mobility and independence and encouraging more exercise, the user becomes more dependent and exercises less. Since becoming dependent on these devices makes it harder to get outside, isolation sets in. The fierce Finnish self reliance must also factor in refusing a wheelchair until absolutely necessary. And I have to wonder about the role of scooter manufacturers blasting their products through expensive commercials that market to stiff consumers by pointing out the government disability reimbursement. (Disability- another disabling American problem.)
I’ve been challenged here to do some self-examination, reflecting on my own reactions to seeing seniors slowly and sometimes awkwardly going about their business. Finland has helped me adjust my unhealthy outlook. I no longer wince when I see a senior moving without the easy grace of youth as she boards a bus or slowly crosses a street. I smile and mentally high five her. I now see that opening doors or offering to help may be unwelcome to a senior committed to managing independently. One of our most serious problems with aging may not be seniors, but our youth-obsessed American culture.
Perhaps I also notice more Finnish seniors out and about because they take advantage of the available social programs. It seems that Finns don’t stigmatize social assistance like Americans do. The psych information on the city website urges those with symptoms that early intervention is important. Perhaps the environment of personal responsibility that permeates Finnish life from day one translates into getting help when you need it.
Senior Finns can participate and stay active through many programs including craft and exercise activities. There is a twist here though. Although we have lots of good senior programs in the US too- many affordable, some free- they are often exclusively for seniors. More isolation. Finnish pensioners are offered discounts at sporting facilities and they are great at using them. The Impivaara pools -enjoyed by everyone- are also crowded with aqua exercisers and senior swimmers. Seniors have bus discounts and specially designated seats. The streets and buildings are accessible, remarkable in this medieval former capitol. This is a place that wants everyone to be visible.
The great American car and four bedroom home in the ‘burbs also impact mobility and visibility. Many Turku-ites live in apartments or smallish houses. The average Finnish family home is smaller than 100m2. Living in a smaller space and using public transportation means less upkeep and no worries about driving limitations. (However, smaller Finnish living space also means less room for aging parents to move in.) In the US, the elderly encounter difficulties as they age in taking care of their property. And not getting a driver’s license renewed is the kiss of death. Smaller square footage and a bus ticket translates to a longer independence and visible participation in the community.
So enjoying an independent lifestyle though the latest years is something that even the Finns haven’t entirely figured out. But they are trying. The This is Finland site showcases how one family has built a multigenerational home. And a new idea is being piloted in Helsinki, where a few young men and women have leased inexpensive apartments in senior residences. These vetted young renters pay about 250/month for a studio in a centrally located senior living facility. In exchange for the reduced rent, young occupants spend about five hours per week socializing with their elderly neighbors. Others have challenged my senior thinking. Maggie, a charismatic, stylish actress has opened my eyes to the creative aging movement. Another acquaintance stressed the importance of intergenerational friendships. Although Finland has not shown me how to guarantee lifelong independent, quality living- there are lots of ideas churning.
The biggest disappointment I have about my months in Finland is that I never enjoyed a comfortable relationship with a Finnish family. One where I got to know the kids, roughhoused with the dogs, looked at vacation pictures and learned how to make pulla. So I may be way off with this last observation. But I do wonder how living in a society where the government assumes a role in so many family matters shapes attitudes toward the elderly. I wonder if considering nursing home placement is the same wrenching conversation for Finns that it is for Americans. I have come across a few blithe comments. Maybe the nursing home decision is no more traumatic here than sending your firstborn off to daycare.
In Louisiana, many grandparents continue important roles in the family. They often help with the child care, pick up the kids from school, babysit, take them to church, teach them to hunt and fish, go to their ball games, teach them to sew or make cookies, treat them to ice cream or park outings. They are called nanny or papa or mere or granny. My own parents have always been important to my now-grown sons, who still make Father’s Day calls to my dad. However, I haven’t seen many Finnish groups that looked like grandparent and grandchildren. I think I saw a grandmother-granddaughter at the Cathedral last night- the remarkable thing, though, is that this stood out. But I repeat, I’ve not grown close to a family during my time here, so perhaps these interactions take place in the private sphere. Also, summer is just beginning- perhaps isovanhemmat season is just starting.
Finland has been a great teacher to me. She has taught me to Finn up and go naked, clean my plate, avoid paper, and stop pretending that how I move will never change. Intergenerational relationships, creative aging, embracing a changing style, mobility are all important as we move into our later years. But perhaps the best way to support each other as we age is just taking steps to make sure we all remain visible.
Many of the lovely faces shown in this blog are the ladies featured in Fabulous Fashionistas, a documentary about eighty somethings who have cultivated or maintained a cutting fashion sense.
My pal Michelle Salts shared this Alessandra Ferri You-tube. I look forward to Ferri’s 82 year old performance as she blasts through a hologram of her 52 year old self.
Karoline Hjorth and Riitta Ikonen’s series of older Finns with things on their heads is a favorite- take some time to enjoy the entire series!
Anna Marquardt is a teacher from Lafayette, Louisiana who is living in Finland and researching educational practices. The opinions expressed in this blog are Anna’s and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Commission.