I hadn’t really thought of moving to Norway until the last week, when I began to pay attention to how that country cares for its elderly citizens.
While North Americans warehouse aging people, who have spent lifetimes contributing to society, there are cultures around the world that take a completely different approach. And Norway, it turns out, is at the top of the list.
As a baby boomer entering that unsavoury age, I find the prospect of more thoughtful care for older people pretty appealing.
Of the many jarring social dysfunctions laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most scandalous is the way Canada has allowed old and vulnerable people to be cast aside – out of sight and out of mind. They’re shunted to nursing homes where underpaid staff slave in sometimes filthy, and now dangerous, conditions trying to give whatever comfort they can to people who face the bleakest of prospects for their remaining days.
The extent of this negligence was laid bare in a recent CBC news report that found that only nine of 626 homes in Ontario received resident quality inspections (RQIs) in 2019. Because RQIs are random and unannounced, they tend to get a truer picture of what’s going on in a facility.
Instead, now most inspections in that province are driven by a complaint or a “critical incident” – in both cases, giving the homes a chance to clean up before inspectors arrive. As I write this, 114 long-term care facilities in Ontario have reported outbreaks of COVID-19.
There are equally concerning stories coming out of Quebec and other provinces, including my home province of Alberta. Across Canada, almost half of the more than 1,000-plus COVID-19-related deaths have occurred in nursing homes, including one just five kilometres from my home in Calgary.
By the time you read this, it will almost certainly be worse.
It truly doesn’t have to be this way. There’s research to back it up. In a study published in 2018, the Research Network on an Aging Society ranked 18 countries on the Aging Society Index. (Canada was not ranked in this study.) It ranked Norway tops, following closely by Sweden. Other high performers included the U.S., Netherlands, Japan, Ireland and Denmark.
Quality scores were determined by measuring productivity and engagement, well-being, equality, social cohesion, and seniors’ physical and financial security.
Of that list, perhaps the most surprising finding was the United States. John Rowe, a geriatrician and public policy expert at Columbia University and lead author of the paper, attributed the high score to the fact that many seniors in the U.S. still have to work, which raises their productivity and engagement score, and “Work is good for your brain and your body.”
Many Americans work into their senior years because they have no choice. The paper found that more than 20 percent of Americans older than 60 are at risk for poverty, compared to 12.5 percent in the rest of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.
Not so in Norway. It leapt ahead of other countries in its care for seniors about eight years ago, when it began a series of reforms to the way it delivered healthcare. It introduced a policy that encouraged getting people out of hospital and nursing home beds as quickly as possible.
That meant it had to build the supports that would enable frail elderly people, including those with dementia, to live more independently. It’s estimated that about half of the 70,000 Norwegians with dementia are living in their own homes.
That took a large up-front investment and, as we know, Norway has an abundance of cash thanks to its energy revenue-fuelled sovereign wealth fund. The country used some of its wealth to offer grants and low-interest loans to renovate houses and to build new facilities.
It also established a “housing bank” that subsidizes the purchase of electronic devices, such as an electronic mattress sensor that turns on a light when a person gets up, or calls an alarm if they don’t get back to bed in a reasonable time. Such tools make it easier for the elderly and infirm to live at home.
The housing bank also supports the construction of “sheltered housing” for people with dementia. The concept, borrowed from Sweden, allows people who can’t take care of themselves to live in small groups, with trained staff to support them.
But caring for our elderly is not just a matter of investing in the proper infrastructure. It’s also a question of attitude. It seems that North Americans are inclined to think that old people are no longer useful, as though when they stopped working full time they no longer had much to contribute to society.
How wrong such an attitude is.
Consider attitudes of cultures in other parts of the world.
In East Asia, the Confucian principle of filial piety – a show of respect for the elderly, parents and ancestors – remains strong. Singapore and China both have laws mandating families to care for their oldest members.
In Greece, “old man” is considered a term of endearment.
And in India, there’s a tradition in which young people are taught to touch the feet of elders as a show of respect.
People who have lived seven, eight or more decades have a lot of life experience. They have a sense of historical perspective the rest of us don’t. And, yes, some have even developed their fair share of wisdom in those years.
An associate of mine recently said “the world is on pause” during the pandemic. Let’s take this time to reflect on the way we treat our elderly citizens, ask ourselves if we can do better, and work on ways to make their lives – and, in turn, our own – richer as a result.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.