Growing old isn’t easy in any country in the world. As a person leaves the workforce, their available prospects for survival could range from a comfortable retirement to abject squalor. Where Iceland is concerned, there are few better countries in the entire world in which to grow old, but this does not mean the country is invulnerable. In fact, as the population continues to age, new measures will be needed to ensure the elderly continue to get the high level of care they currently enjoy.
Before we take a look at what a retired person in Iceland is provided, by municipal and national offices alike, we should take a look at how Iceland stacks up against the rest of the world. The 2015 Global Age Watch Index currently ranks Iceland 7th in the world in terms of quality of care for the elderly.
Indeed, services ranging from housing and pensions to social activities and transport are well provided for by local and national government services alike. However, as with any other country in the developed world, funding for all these services rests upon the expectation that there will always be more young people paying into government coffers than elderly people drawing from them. Iceland is rapidly approaching the point where the treasury will have quite a burden to bear.
According to Statistics Iceland, Icelanders are getting older: in 1990, the average Icelander was 33. Today, the average age is up to 37.2. Currently, just over 19% of the population is over the age of 60. By 2030, that number will climb to over 25%; by 2050, over 30%. In order to continue to provide the numerous services available to the elderly that Iceland currently provides, there are a few options on the table: relax immigration, raises taxes, or both.
While this matter will have to be dealt with, and soon, the elderly in Iceland do currently have it pretty good. There still remain, however, certain groups of elderly people who are especially vulnerable.
The current situation
“Most senior citizens are doing well,” Þórunn Sveinbjörnsdóttir, the chairperson of the Society of Senior Citizens, told the Grapevine. “But there are some who are struggling; who have too little. These are usually people on the rental market. There are also people who sustained losses during the [autumn 2008] bank crash. These are the kinds of people we hear about who don’t have enough to live on by the time the 20th or the 25th of the month arrives.”
Rental prices, in Reykjavík especially, have been increasing significantly, and many have attributed this to an increase in demand from tourists willing to rent an apartment for a couple weeks or even days. But native Icelanders who rent are not the only ones at risk.
“There are also older immigrants arriving,” Þórunn said. “They need, as they are not eligible for the national pension [from Social Insurance Administration], to look to local authorities for assistance. It’s a pretty complicated system for new arrivals.”
The point about older immigrants in Iceland is one immigrant councilor for the City of Reykjavík Barbara Kristvinsson is familiar with. She spoke with us about some of the obstacles these people face.
“One of the difficulties they encounter can be the language, as always. It’s a hard enough system for Icelanders to understand in their own language,” she said. “If you’re over the age of 67, you shouldn’t be getting social welfare payments from the municipalities anymore. You should be getting a pension from the Social Insurance Administration (Tryggingastofnun). But these people don’t have any right to Tryggingastofnun. People are still trying to figure out the legalities of that, and they can be tricky legalities, because these immigrants have to prove that they don’t have rights.”
Barbara also mentions some of the social effects of being a senior immigrant in Iceland.
“I think that integrating is tough,” she told us. “It’s hard enough having to integrate in a foreign country, but try having to integrate into a nursing home, where you’re maybe not going to get your daughter to cook you food from your home. They can’t engage in the usual small talk of getting to know inter-family connections. It’s very lonesome and isolating.”
Reykjavík is taking steps to address this issue. Recently, the city announced it was going to be participating in the global Age Friendly Cities campaign, which aims to make the capital a better place to grow old in. This will include increasing access to health services, but also increasing social events for seniors, making information more accessible, and other programmes. This campaign is to include senior immigrants—not only as part of the target audience, but also among the campaign organisers themselves.
“Maybe the laws [concerning pension funds] will be reviewed, in light of how many more elderly immigrants there are,” Þórunn said, adding that she has seen casework for these people increase.
What we’re doing right, what we could do better
We asked Þórunn to break down for us what Iceland is doing well for its senior citizens, and what it’s doing not-so-well.
“Where we’re doing well is we’re living longer,” she said, and the facts speak for themselves in this case—an Icelander who is 60 years old can expect to live, on average, for another 25 years. “At the same time, we’ve been fighting for many years for these people to have a little more money.”
In fact, the national pension fund’s full monthly allowance amounts to 25,700 ISK. As anyone who has gone grocery shopping in Iceland can attest, this may not necessarily be enough to even eat off of, let alone pay for other goods and services that a senior citizen might want to enjoy. At the same time, the combined powers of the local authorities and the state provide the elderly with services as transportation, home-delivered food, social events and activities, home cleaning services, visiting nurses and, should the need arise, collective living run by municipalities and private companies alike.
One of the more recent examples of services for the elderly that have drawn national attention are the home-delivered meals provided by the city. These meals arrive cold, and need to be microwaved to be warmed up. Many senior citizens complained that these meals were unappetizing, or that they had difficulty preparing them for themselves. The criticism was so concerted that Reykjavík Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson took it upon himself to eat these meals every day for a week, after which he concluded that the food was of the highest quality.
“Some people found the food good, others found it bad,” Þórunn said. “Some other people found the packages difficult to open, or found it complicated to heat the food up in the right way.”
This might be particularly the case where elderly single men are concerned. As Þórunn explained, these men belong to a generation used to having their mothers, and then their wives, attend to such matters as cooking and cleaning. Upon reaching retirement age, and perhaps outliving their spouses, they find themselves at a loss when it comes to being able to attend to these basic needs—assuming they are even physically capable.
“We want increased respect”
While access to information about services for the elderly from the City of Reykjavík is fairly easy, for Icelanders and immigrants alike, the same cannot be said for the Ministry of Welfare. It was fairly easy to find a list of available services, and how to apply for them, on the Ministry’s Icelandic page, but this information proved impossible to find in any other language.
Counselling services are available, both locally and nationally, for elderly immigrants who want to know their rights, but Þórunn believes Iceland could do even better.
“We want increased respect,” she told us, when asked what the major goals were for Iceland’s elderly. “And that goes for the immigrants, too. Those who are new to Iceland also want respect from others. We also want society to understand how important it is to have this group, too,” she added, pointing out that the elderly are often tasked with babysitting younger relatives, picking them up from school and other family matters.
It should also be pointed out that not only do senior citizens comprise the highest percentage of voters for the ruling coalition of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party; senior citizens vote in higher percentages than any other age group in the country, according to the latest data from Market and Media Research.
As Iceland’s population continues to age, being able to maintain, let alone improve, these globally high standards will prove increasingly challenging for the Icelandic government. As seniors continue to go to the polls more than any other age group, upcoming parliamentarians will need to have some idea of how to keep these standards high as demand grows. Not solely from the point of view of winning votes, but more importantly, to maintain the health of the country overall.